and sometimes a paragraph slaps you upside the head

This.

So much this.

I wasn’t expecting to be bowled over here, but this is terribly relevant to, well, everyone. On a mundane, unimportant level, this is why you have people like me, who live and die for story, perfectly content to wander around a fairly story structure-free space like Skyrim. On a much more more important level — you cannot feel all the time. You’ve got to turn off. Even night lights fry eventually, people. In times that admittedly are a great deal more straining to exist in than others, well…don’t feel all the time. The mess the future made. Don’t feel it all the time.

You won’t last.

Advertisements

you were there, but you weren’t

hello

Throughout my childhood, when seeing a place in a movie or hearing mention of it in a newspaper or news clip, there was a constant litany: you were there. It wouldn’t matter if I had been ten years old or three or a newborn; the reminder would come. Always from my father, and always with the implied expectation, sometimes joking but mostly not, that some place memory, some shred of the experience, would remain. Somehow.

I’m sure most parents attempt to do this once or twice at least. I can’t imagine how it feels to hear that so much of your shared life together — moments you congratulated yourself on being able to achieve, for your child, whether that was a first sight of the ocean or a first trip to an amusement park — is, in fact, forgotten.

Actually, well, I can imagine it, too well, but that’s not where I wish to go today.

But I bring it up because, above and beyond parental reminders, there is another far more benign source of chronological insistence we encounter every so often: the age at which whatever alcohol you are drinking was bottled, casked or distilled. For much of my alcohol-drinking life (I know, I know, I am a late bloomer in all things: I never snuck a drop of anything, and reviled what I was given to try at holidays, until well past most people had had their first headsplitting hangover) the years meant little to me. Namely because, if a date even appeared on the bottle or the menu, it was at most maybe two or three years ago, a time which blurred into the stress or college or post-college Trying To Make Ends Meet which, in large part, lacked definition.

This whisky, though, pictured above in my incredibly classy Daiso mug? This whisky was bottled in 1998. 1998. That is a year I remember. A year when I was an actual child, versus the child people say they were when they were teenagers or in college — old enough, in so many ways, to know better, even if not about the things on which their adult selves will judge them. No, in 1998 I was:

  • Two years into well and truly disliking school, having loved it up until the fifth grade when we moved to a prestigious and self-righteously competitive school district that sucked most of the joy out of being a kid among other kids,
  • Two years into having a dog, and realizing that yes, they can tell when you care about too many other things besides them, and thus that our dog was in fact my father’s dog more than anyone else’s, and that was okay because I loved her anyway,
  • Tasked, for the first time, with not crying in the face of a parent’s undoing, as my father broke down trying to read, at his mother’s funeral, from the Northwest Passage, which she’d read to him as he lay abed with scarlet fever as a child,
  • Three years out, still, from being shadowed in some form, and from organizing everything (lampooned though the practice is and probably will be, now, until something worse happens) into a pre- and post- attack landscape, geopolitically but also internally,
  • Terrible at choosing friends, since my latest attempt had resulted in a girl writing my name on an orange and throwing it into her fireplace, to see if I would die a slow and horrid death as per the curse in a book she’d found prescribed,
  • Entranced at the swift advance from the MUDs I’d played for the previous few years to their visual successor, EverQuest,
  • Reading every Steinbeck book but Tortilla Flats, because, like how I next to never finish a TV series, I prefer there always being some scrap remaining, waiting.
  • Just beginning to learn Japanese, having no idea how out of place a foreign woman would be. Imagining I could disappear there. Oh you foolish, hopeful child.
  • Just beginning, it seems, to want to disappear. Not realizing yet that there was a rim of sunlight beyond the dank discomfort of looming adolescence.

You were there, you were there. The litany always made me feel guilty if I couldn’t actually remember being there, wherever there was. I like to tell myself I wouldn’t then do that to a child, but of course I would — like everyone else, with only the best intentions in mind. You want to know that you built a solid foundation of good and lasting memories, I assume, for your progeny. So you try to make sure they hang onto those. But the result of trying to conjure those memories up, time after time, and of being so easy to read, and so clearly disheartened, when your child can’t recall “being there,” is that you encourage them to horde memories like Reese’s peanut butter cups, long past the point where tiny pinholes made by tiny worms pockmark their surfaces. Long past the point at which anyone can savor them anymore — their value has been reduced to a simple pile of shiny foil-wrapped worm nests. But, as the child, you hang onto them anyway, in case someone wants to see your horde. You want to make sure you know how much you have, so you can brag reassuringly about their worth to interested parties.

1998. I was there. But I also wasn’t. Not the me of now, who can look back and cluck her tongue at the naiveté of the twelve year old Japanophile, or wince at that child’s determination not to cry at her grandmother’s funeral — as if anyone thought her better or stronger for it; as if it staved anything off. Not that grandparent’s death, or the next or the next, or the long slow march into dementia-laced oblivion of her own mother. Why not cry, little one? You’re twelve.  You’ve got a long life of crying ahead of you. Get in some practice before you’re the one delivering the eulogy.

(I have, in fact, attempted to write my mother’s eulogy several times in recent years, when her body was with us but her mind wasn’t. But I dissolved into tears each time, and never produced anything worthy of her.)

These are themes I know Proust touches on, in the book I was warned to wait to read until my forties but which I (gee, 12-year-old self, you don’t change much!) stubbornly insisted that my advanced, unsought degrees in loss and longing deemed me capable of appreciating early. But I put Proust down. Not for the meandering sentences or the long ruminations upon the fall of light in a room or the shadows on a street, but because stories that revolve around memory as their focus are…still too sharp, for me. Like fumbling in a junk draw only to come up with bleeding fingers, I’ll stumble into stories with memory at their center and back away, reeling.

Just a few episodes ago in Critical Role — I am behind, as always — the illustrious Darin De Paul (of Reinhardt fame, if you pay Overwatch, or any of the 9,000 other characters he has voiced, if you do not) portrayed a memory-challenged gnome whose lightning-quick seesaws between tearful sincerity and forgetful cantankerousness gouged out my heart and left it in pieces on the carpet. I had to press pause and flee to the grim sanctity of a bathroom stall — again, like 12 year old me, I have no great desire to be seen crying in public, let alone at my desk on a workday. But Sprigg, his character.

Oh, Sprigg.

It is the sort of thing that happens to you, I am given to understand. My peers are too young and too lucky, by and large, to have dealt with this yet, but I do read — and this happens, as you grow older. You set out wanting to hear all the stories, sing all the songs, do all the things. And then one by one as people are taken from you, gently or not, willingly or not, the number of stories you can hear, or songs you can sing, without being hurt…shrinks. I gather that at some point you become okay with this (or not). But I am not there yet. And sudden veerings off into the territory of memory — whether those doing the veering are real or imagined; aging spouses of once-lauded public figures or gnarled gnomes in an internet Dungeons and Dragons show — these things eviscerate me. In MUDs, it would look like:

eviscerated

And it would be correct. I have no saving throw. No luck or inspiration. It’s just a one-shot to the heart, and I am down.

So that’s why I haven’t returned to Remembrance of Things Past, among other things. If you were wondering.

buckle up

I am reading Blood Meridian, because Guy Gavriel Kay said it was the sort of recommendation he didn’t immediately make; that he was careful doing so; and there is no surer way to get to me to read a book than to imply that I am somehow inadequate to the task, or that you might regret having recommended it to me, or that there must be special circumstances in which the recommendation and subsequent reading of said book is deemed acceptable.

That’s how I ended up reading Gravity’s Rainbow and Remembrances of Things Past and The Possibility of an Island and…you get the idea. And, in the gentlest way possible (because no one making these recommendations was A Bad Person), I’d like to point out that every single book I was recommended with a caveat was recommended thusly by a man. No woman ever told me “maybe you can handle this but…” or “this is a great book but officially I’m not recommending it to you…” or “this was powerful to me when I read it but maybe you should wait.”

Now, to be fair, fewer women than men have ever recommended books to me. But those who did, refrained from making assumptions about my “readiness” for a book. Or tried to scare me off, or protect themselves with disclaimers about not officially making the recommendation. (On the one hand this seems partly a product of a lawsuit-happy culture; in the other, why did those few women recommending books to me feel comfortable dispensing with the screen of demurrals, whereas the men felt the need to impress upon me the degree to which they were not recommending the books? Am I such a liability?)

Anyway. Blood Meridian. Onward.

mindfield

I am very much stricken, for obvious reasons (see: Alzheimer’s), by stories where memory and its loss or deliberate disruption is a centerpiece. Remember Me, Dreamfall, Remembrance of Things Past, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind…and all the memory-centric parts of stories not directly about it, like What Dreams May Come or Life Is Strange or Logan. It’s so predictable that I can see people wince or grow leery, if they’re with me at a movie or during a cutscene in a video game, and content starts turning that direction. Maybe in a few decades we’ll all know better how to deal with this, but right now everyone just gets uncomfortable and doesn’t know what to do when they know stuff that makes me sad is now playing out on-screen, trapping me, and them by association, somewhere none of us wants to be.

Behold, the dream of everyone connected to anyone with dementia: beating the everloving shit out of the destroyer of memories.


Books and comics are easier. Your private pain remains private. No one is there experiencing it with you, forced to either acknowledge or desperately ignore (itself a sad sort of acknowledgment) the anvil that’s sitting on your heart. But these mediums also make it easier for stuff like this to creep up on you. Fewer people read, which means fewer spoilers, and no one’s making trailers for physical comics that I know of. So this bit in the last collected Batgirl of Burnside caught me by surprise. We had already dealt with memory issues several issues ago, so I thought it was past. Nope. 


Look, though, at that beautiful visual rendering of memory disintegration. You know how this would play out in a moving medium. You know how the sound would change, how the screen would distort, how the voices would fade in and out. And here it is done visually, on one still, flat page.

As a grim connoisseur of such portrayals, I gotta say: this is pretty fantastic. You have movement, the notion of a center that’s starting to fray at the edges, and geometric rigidity that suggests a mental stability that turns out to be an illusion. Things are orderly but they’re still falling apart. Sound doesn’t line up with image doesn’t line up with time, even though it should. Even though everyone wants it to, it doesn’t.

Seriously. I love Batgirl of Burnside, but this may be my favorite panel in the whole run.

poetic nationalism

Daufridi said, very softly, “It is unwise to love anyone or anything too greatly, de Talair. People die, things are taken from us. It is the way of our lives in this world.”

“I have reason to know this. I have lived twenty-three years with that truth.”

“And have therefore moderated your passions?”

“And am therefore resolved that I will not live through the death of my country as I endured the death of the woman I loved.”

It would be obtuse to point out how uneasy such sentiments — even by known, loved characters, from stories we remember — make me now, and for good reason. Even before our current state of national affairs, asking us to make the leap from love of people to love of the place they call home, and the customs that shape that place as unique, is…fraught.

But I keep coming back to it. Uneasily, a little sheepishly, I admit that the stories I value most have that strong current of love of (fictional) country in them. Hell, most of them are even named after the countries in question. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Malafrena. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. In each instance, the main characters love people, but more than people they love place. And not just the receding knife-points of mountains, or the mirror of a lake, but the customs of the area that mark that place as different from all others.

Of course though — and I regret that I do this now, take things apart this way now; while necessary it is an unpleasant way to look at literature or media of any form; constantly dissecting — in each instance stated above, the characters embracing these poetically nationalist sentiments were of the aristocracy. Landed gentry, in the case of Piera and Itale of Malafrena, and the prince in the case of Alessan of Tigana. Neither author, I don’t believe, asks us to suspend our knowledge of the limits of such sentiments. Both books feature poorer people saying, essentially, that it doesn’t matter who’s in power, the rivers will still flood and life will still be hard. Etc. But their less poetic realities aren’t allowed to eclipse the flowery, insistent love of the landed aristocracy (dispossessed or otherwise) for the lands they call theirs.

I hate that I see that, as an adult looking back on tales I loved. I hate that I can look on my favorite quote from Malafrena, retrieved again and again with love:

“Is it so easy?” he said after so long that Itale, befogged with exercise, fresh air, beer, and well-being, was not sure what he was talking about. “You set out…you set out to make yourself. To make the world. All the things you must do, and see, and learn, and be, you must go through it all. You leave home, come to the city, travel, miss nothing, experience it all, you make yourself, you fill the world with yourself and your purposes, your ambitions, your desires. Until there’s no room left. No room to turn around.”

“There is, here,” Itale put in. “I told you. I’m as empty as that beer-jug. Air, sunlight, silence, space.”

“That won’t last.”

“It will. It’s we who don’t last.”

Estenskar leaned against the doorway, gazing out into the country darkness.

“Now that I know that I can’t choose,” he said, “now that I’ve finally learned that there are no choices, that I can’t make my way and never could, that it was all deceit and conceit and waste–now that I’ve given up trying to make my way, I can’t find it, I can’t hear the voice. I’m lost. I went too far and there’s no way home.”

–and question whether Estenskar’s idea of home and country remotely lines up with what the uncelebrated, unquoted people of the city think of as home and country. Estenskar, himself as much a poet as Bertran de Talair, and with a similar reputation for moving the masses to action with his words on often political topics, nevertheless speaks — his hard times notwithstanding — from a very different place than most of the populace of Malafrena (which serves as a fictional country straining under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, FYI). The mountain ranges and alpine villages and lakes and quaint country customs he writes of with, yes, love, are as accessible to him as the thronged city streets of pseudo-Vienna. Like Hemingway thumping on about Africa from the north woods of Michigan, it’s easy to sing the praises of Somewhere Else when you can afford to leave, and to pine for Somewhere Else once you have left. Even when your vaunted otherwhere is somewhere you claim, loftily, as home.

For the people who cannot leave, the rose-tinted glasses of distance aren’t a lens through which they get to look. For the people who cannot leave, poems urging them to rise up in the streets and slay those who would rule over them aren’t just words to hoist glasses to in taverns. They’re verses that can and will get them killed. In their homes, sometimes. In front of their families.

When we are asked to believe in the countries of fictional characters, and especially when the vast majority of characters we are shown from the countries in question are appealing and lovable, it can be easy — it feels good — to take them at their word. But when you put the book down and see such sentiments reflected in the real world, about your own country, it doesn’t feel good anymore.

And that sucks. It is a necessary and important resignation to make, I suppose, as someone who lives in the world, but it sucks. We want — I want — to believe in Tigana, in Malafrena, as places as beautiful and deserving of awe and affection as the characters who live there believe them to be. But the characters have time to write about their love of country only because they have the money and leisure with which to do so. And blind flag-waving is dangerous. And you have to be living under a rock not to see the consequences of that playing out today.

It makes the magic on the page less magical, honestly. Necessarily so.

 

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.