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

atlwcs

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.

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.

all the light we cannot see

I am reading this book — no, I haven’t given up on Proust, but my copy is digital and I don’t always want to look at a little screen when I’ve been looking at big ones all day — because I’ve wanted to since I heard the title. It’s beautiful. The moment I encountered it, I think on list of acquisitions, I wanted to read it. And now I can.

I love Jutta’s fury over the bombing of Paris. She has no claim to it. She is so far from tojisha status anyone would say she was putting on airs. But this thing, this most beautiful and loved thing to her is being broken, somewhat in her name, and it’s ripping her up. It’s a only a few lines that document this but it’s perfect. We can’t be doing this. Give it back to me. Not even the city, which she has never seen and has no sensible expectation of ever seeing. But the idea of it. They’re killing even that. And she’s furious.

super

Today was Free Comic Book Day.

I didn’t know that, because I’m not really much of a comics person. I found out via an almost slapstick line-of-sight reveal: from going up the wrong ramp, seeing a fence I couldn’t get past, looking back the way I came, encountering a man in a spacesuit and cape, dismissing him as irrelevant to my escape, then realizing that he was out there advertising the comics shop hidden behind the adobe wall forming one side of my enclosure.

Ta daa. Free Comic Book Day.

comics

I’m not traditionally a comics person, but I do try. I love Batgirl of Burnside, for example. I’ve seen…half…of the big movies? A lot of the reasons I’m turned off by superheroes are pretty cut-and-dried, I know. Nonsensical costumes, gravity-defying boobs, dumb love plotlines. A too-eager reflection of the real world, but tweaked, when what I typically want is a depiction of Anywhere But Here (see: Ferelden! the Shire! Morrowind!) with all the narrative and emotional pull of life as we know it.

But, costumes and gender problems aside, I also always took issue with the portrayal of hero flaws. They seemed far too pronounced. Even in third grade, tasked with writing a super hero story, I chafed at the weakness I was given to write about (we pulled weaknesses, like strengths, from notecards in a basket). “How can she be old enough to be super if she’s afraid of water?” I argued with my teacher [conveniently forgetting my own mandatory, remedial swim class for Kids Who Are Afraid Of the Deep End]. “Real people don’t do this!”

What I meant, or what I’m reinterpreting what was probably a much less nuanced argument to have meant, is that real people’s weaknesses aren’t so clear-cut and laid out there, plain to see. You don’t just fall apart at the exposure of your weakness, whether that’s water or cancer or the discussion of either. Right? I spent decades eschewing superheroes not so much for their superpowers as for their over-pronounced frailties. Everyone has weaknesses, sure, I thought. But you deal with them. They don’t weigh on you for episode after episode, lurking in your subconscious or your body like bombs, waiting for the proper moment to blow your plans to smithereens.

starlord

Except, that’s exactly what they do.

**SPOILERS FOR GOTG2**

When Peter Quill’s father tells him he put the tumor in his mother’s head, his reaction was instantaneous and 100% what I screamed for him to do in my head (albeit mostly in profanity): he attempts to blow this guy the fuck away. That the speaker is technically his father matters not one jot: here, personified, is the reason his mom died. Blam. You absofuckinglutely attack that. Thumbs-up, Starlord.

The deep satisfaction I got from Quill’s kneejerk reaction was not lost on me. Coming out of the theater to a confusing barrage of dammed-up texts about my mom’s hospice care, it was not lost on me. Maybe not as a third-grader (let’s be real: the cultural critique game is not that strong in those afraid of the deep end) but definitely as a teenager onward, I had disparaged superheroes for the giant bullseyes they walked around with, glued to their backs. “Hey father issues, over here!” “Oi, Krypton, pick me!” “Enclosed spaces! Come at me bro!” People, I thought, don’t work like that. Everyone’s issues are deeply buried and they only come up in the quiet of your own mind, are dealt with, and then are shelved away, hopefully a little better cataloged than before, but otherwise ignored.

Yeah, um. Nope.

If I someone were standing in front of me who could somehow credibly claim to be responsible for my mother’s illness, I’d beat the everloving fuck out of him. It’s a giant emotional bullseye that I was just too sheltered, or lucky, to realize I’d have to carry around one day. I wouldn’t even pause — as Peter Quill doesn’t even pause — to reflect upon the recriminations, legal or moral or otherwise, of my actions.

I have acquired my bullseye. I pick up an issue of Runner’s World magazine, see an article on one man’s doomed attempt to keep running in the face of Alzheimer’s and bam, slap that sucker right back down on the shelf, unwilling to bring that freshly energized sadness into my day. (Still haven’t read the article.) I walk into a movie theater with a bunch of friends to see X-Men, knowing zero things about X-Men, and suddenly I’m burrowing nine miles back into the depths of my hoodie, fleeing Patrick Stewart’s all too accurate portrayal of dementia’s viciousness.

It’s not that I didn’t think people had (and I’ve tried not to use this word, because it has been co-opted by too many people to mean too many different things, and not with the best of intentions) triggers. I grew up in the nineties and aughts. From What About Bob to What Dreams May Come, we knew shit went down. That people got fucked up. But I always thought it would be…well. Other people, I guess. Not me.

The level of fuckery required for superhero-level bullseyes, I thought, didn’t apply to me. Unlike families I’ve since come to know intimately, no one in my house screamed at each other or threw things at each other, or starved themselves or drove their cars into trees on purpose, and I thought well, good. Bases covered. I’m safe from bad things. I knew the disease was coming, had seen it take my grandmother, and figured I was as ready as one can be.

I was wrong.

In a movie rife with enjoyable comedic and emotional beats, Guardians‘ portrayal of Quill’s reaction there is still my favorite moment. Because it is so true. (And, I guess, a little forgiving, if I think of it as true.) No one presses pause there to make judgmental Instagram reposts of Pinterest quotes in Lucida Handwriting pontificating that they would have shown compassion to their mother’s killer. No one chastises Peter for having feelings. They just do their best to help him mow down the fucker who killed his mom. And who also, okay, will kill everyone else if left to his own devices, but that, for me (if not for Quill — this is why he’s the superhero and I’m not) is beside the point.

Maybe, then, the unrealistic thing about superheroes isn’t their giant bullseye weaknesses just waiting to be exploited.

It’s that they get to overcome them.

 

mother tongue

aquarium

I wanted to write a post about reading The Handmaid’s Tale as a teenager. How it was my mother who encouraged me to read it, when it came up as an option in school.

But I don’t remember enough.

I can’t tell her about it, now. She doesn’t know it anymore. Might not know me. But I recall not wanting to read the book, namely because I didn’t want to listen to my classmates, like the guy who told me I should fuck dogs if I thought fucking women was okay, weigh in on it. I didn’t want to read it but I did anyway, because my mother so rarely weighed in on what we should or should not read, and she said I ought to read that.

I remember bringing up the butter as moisturizer — “how could you…?” — as an artless segue into a discussion about the ending. (Spoilers.) My mother walked a fine line between the Reviving Ophelia generation of mothers, rightfully concerned about their kids cutting or killing themselves; and the blatant pragmatism of someone who had already considered her future and decided that yes, there were worse things than death. This was accompanied by all these corollaries explaining that then and only then, only in such an environment as that, would it even be conceivable to–

–and I’d cut her off flatly, reminding her that…oh, I can’t remember the pet phrase I had for it. I had a pet phrase for everything. Something about not wallowing in a puddle of my own despair. I didn’t like — abhorred, even — the idea of her treating me even for a minute with kid gloves, as some fragile Ophelia in need of bookshelves’ worth of doctoral opinions about child rearing. (I don’t know where I got the idea that any parenting advice obtained from a book was bad, but there it was. Maybe I just hated the cover, how fragile it made us all look.) But I also wanted her to keep leveling with me the way she was doing, about Handmaid’s Tale. About rape, I guess, and suicide. As far as I knew, no one else’s mom was leveling with them on this — at least not honestly, without the cellophane wrappings of religion or dogma or someone else’s words getting in the way.

If I could watch it with her, I’d thank her for that. For not pretending these things don’t happen. Or that by not talking about them, you can keep them from happening to you. But I can’t talk to her about it, because she’s no longer herself. And I guess, to her, I’m no longer me, either.

IMG_1219

So, anyway. The choice of song during the credits made my skin crawl. Is there a term for one’s skin crawling in the face of too on-point juxtaposition? If someone comes up with one, do let me know. I will then apply it all the times I catch myself biking to or from work, in despair over not remembering a thing — the Italian Cypress species of tree, for example, or Jamie Fraser’s full name — even as I wait for updates from my father on my mother’s bedridden, unknowing, pain-wracked condition.

I was grateful to her for the words she shared with me, after all. It is only right to keep trying to shape myself with them until I go helplessly down the same road she did. Even as I remember her saying that there were, indeed, worse things than death.

I know, Mom.