Learning to Rest & Recover

In the past year, amongst all the other hard truths and difficult steps of my growth, I came face-to-face with the fact that I never learned how to recover since I spent almost my entire life coping. Specifically, due to the situation I grew up in and the life I was choosing for myself in my college years, I never learned to recover from things because I never had the time or opportunity to do more than cope.

I’m quite good at coping. Throw me into any difficult situation, any amount of stress, any environment, and I’ll make it work. I’ll get things done, achieve my goals, and manage to keep my sanity. Like a lot of people who grew up with stress and trauma as an everyday part of my life, I got so used to it that I feel uncomfortable without a constant high-level of stress so I tend to thrive when things get difficult. In the years since I graduated college, leaving behind the orderly environments and clear, outlined goals, I’ve discovered that there is an upper limit to how much I can handle. I don’t thrive under highly stressful situations so much as I never learned how to live comfortably in any other kind of situation.

What made it click this past year was talking with my roommate about how to organize his studying and classwork time. He’s a student now and he regularly struggles with staying focus on his work because he’s an extrovert and can be easily distracted by anyone even walking into the room he’s working in. He remarked that he gets frustrated because he wants to go do stuff with me and our other roommate, and I agreed that it is harder for him as a late-20s adult going to college when most of his friends have already graduated. He can’t connect and enjoy studying with his classmates because some of them are a decade younger than him, and he doesn’t have a group of friends to study with since we’re all playing video games or going out (I’ve offered to sit and write with him if he wants company while he works, but he has yet to take me up on it).

While we were talking about strategies to help him focus, I told him some anecdotes from my years in college and the lessons I learned. During my junior and senior years, when I figured out what I wanted to do and buckled down to work, I did homework or worked six nights of the week. Between classes, studying, and working full time, I got one night off a week, so I took Thursday nights off to play video games with my friends. Other than that, I ignored everyone or told them they could join me as I studied in the library or in the English Department lounge. I picked studying and work over everything else and counted on my friends to understand. Some of them did, some of them didn’t, but what mattered most to me was making the right choice for myself.

All that stuff tumbled around my head for a while before it finally connected with the final piece to the puzzle. One of the most important things I ever learned from a professor in college was a saying he liked (and still likes) to repeat to all of his classes. “I know some of you will say that you write your best papers at the last minute, as the deadline approaches. That isn’t true. What is true is that you only write your papers at the last minute.” It was a lesson I took to heart then and something that connected what I learned by choosing myself in college with what I’ve been learning from the books I’m reading about trauma (they’ll show up in a review sometime).

All of this made it clear that nothing had changed from college. I hadn’t become deficient in someway. I hadn’t lost anything. I just got worn out because I assumed that I thrived when under a great deal of stress instead of questioning if I had ever tried to live without that much stress. I’d gradually worn myself down because I could just keep coping until I was physically incapable of continuing. Even after I knew I wasn’t really fine, when I’d seen the cracks in the world I was building for myself and did my best to patch them, I still thought I could keep doing what I was doing and the changes I’d made to my world would eventually fix things. Turns out what I needed to change was me.

I still think I made the right choice back then to change jobs. I think that, overall, my world is much better than it was three years ago even as I’m currently breaking it all apart and building most of it back up again. I also think that what I really needed was to learn how to rest. How to recover. They sound so easy, right? The idea of resting is super easy until you try to explain it to someone, isn’t it? You grab for metaphor and simile, confident that the person you’re talking to understands it and you just have to find the right bridge to connect your understand and theirs. I didn’t really understand it. I thought I did. If you’d asked me even three months ago, I’d have explained that resting is like gasping for air after a sprint, taking the minute you have to get as much air into your lungs before you’re up and sprinting again. Recovery is the break you take during a marathon to stretch a cramped muscle, drink a sports drink/energy slurry, and use the bathroom before you carry on running.

I’m sure you can see the flaw in my understanding. Those are breaks. Reprieves. Moments of peace in a storm. Real rest and recovery are something else entirely. To be entirely fair to myself, it’s difficult to understand that you misunderstood something most people can’t explain and that most people take for granted. For instance, did you know that most old memories are typically viewed in third person, almost like a story you’ve told yourself (or that someone else has told you)? You don’t really see most old memories through your own eyes, you see yourself participating in them.

Until very recently, I thought that it was normal for all memories to be first person. Memories weren’t stories so much as resubmerging myself in a moment long past. In most people, the only first-person memories are the recent ones and the traumatic ones. For me, my trauma changed the way my brain stored information so thoroughly only a handful, if that, of my memories were in third-person. I don’t think those count as real memories though since I know the photographs of those moments and I’m pretty sure I just built a story around those moments that I’ve labeled a memory. They’re all from before I was 2 and I don’t think my memory is that good.

You can see how I might have a bit of a warped understanding of some things, yeah? It’s hard to really grasp how different my understanding of the world is from yours when all we can do is use metaphors to approximate our own experiences and ideas in the hopes of evoking someone else’s.

After a month and a half of rest, three weeks of which got eaten up as coping time since I talked to my parents one week before I had two solid weeks of all-day meetings, I think I’ve kind of gotten it figured out. Enough so, anyway, that I can do it every day. I’ve literally got it built into my daily schedule every day but Monday (I kinda go all day Monday, without stop, from 6am until 10pm). While that might seem a bit absurd, to schedule rest and recovery, it’s kind of who I am? I like order and having a time marked out and a box to check for every day makes it a bit easier to take the time to actually rest and recover.

I’m still pretty burnt out. Nothing is going to fix that in any short amount of time, but the rest I’ve taken has provided me with enough energy and strength to go back to writing every day, to working on my projects, and to figure out how to choose me right now. I’ve never been good at advocating for myself, but nobody else expects as much from me as I do. Any and all of my D&D players are happy to play D&D modules instead of custom campaigns. My friends understand if I don’t go for a hike with them because I need to do laundry and make D&D battle maps for the one remaining custom campaign I’m running. And if they don’t… Well, their loss.

I’m choosing myself again and I’m comfortable with the knowledge that this won’t be easy. I may stop talking to some people I’m close to if they won’t respect my needs and boundaries. I may need to get a new job if nothing changes and the same problems repeat without end. I may have to cut back on all of the D&D I’m doing so I have energy for other projects and the players who lose out might not like it. I may have to skip everything I’d planned for an evening because I really need to rest more and I’ll have to learn how to be more adaptable. There are no hard-and-fast rules here, other than I need to be aware of how I’m doing at any given moment so I can make the calls I need.

This may not seem difficult, but I almost chickened out of telling my at-work D&D group that I needed us to switch to running modules because creating the entire campaign might take the same number of hours as preparing a module, but running a module takes a lot less energy. And that’s the easiest of all the things I might need to do. They only get harder from here.

Wish me luck.

Saturday Morning Musing

It took a while, but I think I finally figured out the complex feelings I had about where I grew up when I helped my parents out last month (mentioned in this post). Since I left after my first winter break during college, I haven’t gone back to visit for more than a week or so at a time. I stayed at my college for almost every break after that, working and living in the dorms aside from the few holidays I went back, like Christmas or Thanksgiving. I lived in the dorms and got used to staying quietly by myself when the campus was almost completely deserted aside from the foreign exchange students during the holidays. My little college town became my home, even though I moved at least once a year, from one dorm to another. The campus became the place I belonged and I stopped calling my parents’ house “home.”

I realized during one of my recent meditations that I no longer even think of their house as home. My old neighborhood is no longer my home. It’s the place I grew up and haven’t done more than visit in several years. I don’t really recognize it anymore. I know where it is and I’ll always know how to get there, but it’s just as foreign as the neighborhoods I used to park in when I drove myself to high school. I can navigate through it and I’ve got a basic idea of what it looks like, but I don’t really feel any connection to the place. I’ve still got that for the actual house I grew up in, but it fades a little bit as my parents make changes or slowly replace parts of the house. When I was spending time with my sister, I realized I didn’t know where anything was kept anymore and that I was essentially a stranger in the kitchen where I’d learned to cook.

I’m sure that’s a feeling many adults have to cope with from time to time, and I’m sure there are people who have similar (but different) feelings about visiting their parents because their parents no longer live in the home they grew up in. I even sort of expected it as I grew in college and started to see what it meant to me to have a place I’d chosen to belong. I wasn’t surprised when I finally felt it, just uncertain as to what it meant and why I felt it.

I’ve spent most of my adult life with a lot of difficult emotions tied to the place I grew up. I even spent a lot of time seeing it as the same place with the same people I’d left behind. It was static in my eyes, unchanging and always representing what I’d endured. Since my last non-holiday visit, I’ve been working on letting go of the emotions and memories connected to all those past painful moments, so I can finally start to see my family as they’ve become since then. I think finally seeing the places I grew up, the streets I had walked down and the yards I had cut through, as someplace foreign to me is a sign that I’ve finally started to achieve that. Those places are no longer static, no longer a time capsule to a past I want to leave behind. I feel like I’m seeing them for the first time since I essentially am, now that I’m not seeing them as they were a decade ago.

I still have a long way to go, though. I’ve gotten better about letting my family be whoever they are now, but it can be difficult to avoid the old habits and to not see them as the same people when some of the old problems still crop up. For instance, I didn’t find out my parents had gotten rid of their landline until I called it and was told the number was no longer in service. Panicking, I called every member of my immediate family with a cell phone and no one answered. Eventually, one of my sisters called back and explained what had happened. This was the summer I’d officially moved out for good, so it created feelings of disconnection from my family. It was startling to realize I hadn’t called the landline in months and that we hadn’t even talked in that time. The same sort of thing happened with the trip my parents went this summer, which was the whole reason I was in Chicago to spend time with my sister. I hadn’t gotten the group text or emails they’d sent out to the rest of my siblings about their trip and the need for us to lend a hand with our youngest sister, so I had made plans during most of the time they were gone. It was rather frustrating to learn about it only a couple of weeks before they needed help, and a bit late too since I’d fallen asleep that afternoon and missed the conference call they’d set up the week before.

That being said, I’m the only one who hasn’t lived near or with them for at least part of the year. Two of my siblings permanently live in the same general area and one of my siblings stays with them between employment engagements. The youngest is still in high school. I’ve lived in a different state for several years and only visit on the major holidays for the most part. I’m not much of a phone caller and I’ve always been pretty independent, so we don’t talk. It’s pretty easy for me to miss out on a lot of big news as a result. It can be frustrating at times, but I could also make a point to call my mom or dad once a week and I do not. I’m sure they’d love to hear from me, so it’s not like it’s all their fault or anything. It’s just difficult to remind myself to view my family as they are now rather than as I remember them when we’re having the same problems I remember us having.

Today is My Birthday

After a certain point in high school, I haven’t been super fond of my birthday. To be honest, I never really dissected that. I don’t know if I ever spent any energy on why I’m decidedly neutral on the subject of my birthday before today. I’m all about other people’s birthdays and throw myself into celebrating them as much as I can with my limited means and social energy. But not mine. I like to mark them, sure, but mostly by gathering my friends around me to do something like we’d do any weekend. Hang out, go hiking, play D&D, maybe watch a movie or play a game together. Hell, last year I got a cake to celebrate moving day two weeks after my birthday and otherwise pretty much forgot on my own birthday.

If I’d had to say why I wasn’t very interested in my birthday before a couple of years ago, I’d have said that I’d rather celebrate personal achievements. Sure, birthdays are a celebration of life, but I’d rather just do that as a part of living it rather than taking a day to specifically celebrate a particular life. I didn’t really want attention back then and I much preferred to do things on my own terms than try to accommodate people’s desire to mark my birthday. I wouldn’t stop them, of course, I was never that much of a Grinch, but I wasn’t about to encourage it.

Now, I see that birthdays are a chance to let people celebrate you. Structure is super nice and while we should let people we care about know that we appreciate them all year long, it’s still nice to use their birthday as a bit of an excuse to make a production of it. To kick it up a notch or do something special just for them. Which is why I’m more interested in other people’s birthdays than my own. I like letting people know I appreciate them. Any resistance I currently feel to celebrating my birthday is because August has never really been that great of a month for me and I don’t really keep track of my life in terms of years. Sure, I know my age, but that stopped being a measurement of my growth a long time ago and now I keep track of time since big events.

My life has had a lot of big events and there are definitely a few that are sort of definitive moments that I know had a big impact on my life. Looking back on them, I can see how my life would have been incredibly different if I’d made a different choice and how the choices I made contributed to me being the person I am today. There’s a wide variety of events and while reflection on my life is the purpose of this birthday post, I’m not going to go deeply into all of them. Some of them were moments I don’t want to share because they mean more to me for being private or because I don’t feel ready to share them.

The first one, and one that actually was two forks disguised as one, was my parents telling my three siblings and I that they were going to have another children who would wind up being twelve years younger than me. I fell out of my chair laughing and wound up being almost a third parent to my younger sister since my dad worked a lot and my mother was homeschooling us at the time so she needed all the help she could get. I eventually realized that this was the moment that I decided to deal with the crazy randomness of life and (mis)fortune by laughing instead of crying. There’s more behind that, but this isn’t the post to go into it. I also realized that I enjoy taking care of and teaching people. It really helped me to learn to cope positively and how to be patient and compassionate.

The second is not something I’m willing to write about in any detail online, but I learned how I respond in a crisis and that there’s a certain part of me, beneath the compassion and desire to just love people that will stay firm and act when I feel like I don’t have any other choice.

The third was the college I chose. I grew more than I thought possible, in ways I never expected, and learned things I never knew I didn’t know. I met a lot of amazing people, a handful of terrible people, and discovered that we’re all the heroes of our own narratives but sometimes that means we’re the villains of someone else’s. I made mistakes and I hurt people. I made mistakes and hurt myself. Like I said, I learned a lot. Without the place I chose, I’d have been an incredibly different person, to the point of it being useless to try to guess what or who I might have been. I’ve got no frame of reference for who that other Chris could have been, so how could I ever guess? The other side of my college choice is that it also resulted in a giant pile of student debt due which has left me feeling like I’ve been forced to put my life on hold until I pay it off. Even though I don’t regret my choice and think that the choice I made was the right one, I still struggle with the prospect of all my student loans and how much of my money I’ll have sunk into them by the time they’re paid off.

After that, there’s my move to Madison and my first job after the move. It didn’t go well, but I really figured out what was important to me and what my limits were. Tied to that is another thing I don’t want to share online, from two years ago (almost to the day), that irrevocably altered my life. There are some questions you never want the answers to and, throughout my life, I’ve gotten two of them I’d prefer to have never come across. But it reinforced my resolve and sense of self. The two experiences, my first job and the thing from two summers ago, weren’t positive influences on my life, but I learned a lot from having made it through them. “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God” (Robert F. Kennedy on hearing of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.).

It’s been a long twenty-seven years. I’ve hopefully got many more years ahead of me, but I wouldn’t mind if they were a little less eventful. I’d prefer if my next major life event was something good, like being able to write full time, getting married, or buying a house. Those would all be nice, even if there’s less to learn from the happy moments than the difficult ones.

My Mind is a Battlefield

My mind is a battlefield:
a land ravaged by war
where the once green fields
and luscious forests
are now gone,
replaced by blasted earth
and barren, burnt wastelands
full of sad, lost refugees
who shy from everyone they meet.

My mind is a world at war:
full of brutal savagery
and the most wondrous beauty
locked in some twisted dance
that never ends
while someone wanders
searching through the misery
to find the scrap of truth
that makes 
this travesty
worth it.

Maybe you can understand why
I do not like to dwell on things,
why I often seem vacant
and perhaps unmindful of
the people and things around me
or why I might not be listening
when you’re talking to me.
There’s a war going on and
I don’t have much energy 
to spare
because I’m the general
of both armies.

While you’re talking to me,
I’m trying to navigate through my mind,
watching out for landmine memories
and avoiding guerilla anxieties,
not to mention all the other soldiers
I have sent to sabotage me.
I usually never make it out.
I know all my own tricks
and there are too many landmines
to avoid them all,
especially when the guerrillas
are chasing you.

Yet I go in, the external me
who watches this all unfolding,
and hope to find
the 
sepia photograph
or inspiring tale 
of truth
that makes enduring
this constant, ceaseless war
a viable option.
The armies leave me be
but the guerrillas will not stop
planting landmines and
chasing me towards them,
despite the call of peace
and my humanitarian efforts
to stave off the nuclear winter
the generals consider simply for the sake
of concluding.

 

Saturday Morning Musing

Lately, I’ve been noticing that a lot of musicians I follow have been disappearing from parts of the internet. Or, at least, some of their music has been. In the past two months, links to songs I posted are now broken and playlists I’ve created on YouTube and Spotify have empty spots where favorite songs used to live. Some of these are songs I’ve listened to for years that are now gone. Some of these are the albums that got me into the musician that I can no longer find anywhere but on my iPod. Sometimes, I even begin to wonder if I’ve gone crazy. I mean, what else could I think when I have a four-track EP on my iPod of Kyle Andrews music that 20+ pages of google results knew nothing about? No one, not even the friend who first got me into the artist, remembers that album. If you’ve heard of the album “Damn Baby You’re Cold” by Kyle Andrews, please let me know. I’d really like confirmation that I’m not insane.

For the most part, though, there are traces left behind. A split second of video because the YouTube video player displays “This video is no longer available” or something similar. A listing for a song in a playlist, but the text is now dark grey and Spotify keeps telling me that “This song is not available. If you have the file on your computer you can import it.” I can’t find that song anywhere online, except I can still purchase the entire album it’s on from the author’s website or from iTunes. All of these great videos of my favorite live performer doing small shows while walking down streets in little towns in Europe are gone and my heart breaks that I can’t hear the haunting beauty of his voice echoing off old buildings in little alleyways and mixing with the bustle of people stopping to listen. Thankfully, someone else uploaded it a long time ago. Unfortunately, the quality is much lower and the greater range I could hear in the other video isn’t present in this one. Still, at least I know this one used to exist for sure.

I’ve been trying to figure out if this particular kind of artist, indie rock seems to be the only genre I follow with this problem, is in the middle of some kind of legal battle or if they’re trying to remove some of their older work from the internet. I mean, that’s a shame since I loved sharing their music, but I can understand that they probably want to get paid and having their music up on YouTube probably isn’t super conducive to a living wage as an artist. Still, I really wish I could share the majesty of Kyle Andrews singing about getting a lump of coal for Christmas from an ex-lover or about what he’s going to do with his current lover at Christmas if the world doesn’t end before then. I can’t even direct you to where you can buy it since nowhere I’ve found has it listed.

I worry, a lot, about erasing the past. Or losing it. I’ve been guilty of trying to ignore it and of hiding from it, but now I do everything I can to remember the past without getting stuck in it. When chunks of it, especially chunks that were super important to me, go missing, it makes me worry. Not because I’m concerned about falling back into my bad habits, but because I worry that time will eventually just make me forget. Unlike my iPod, life doesn’t have a shuffle setting that might let you rediscover old favorites you haven’t heard in years. Sometimes you get a prompt that reminds you of something you’d forgotten a long time ago, but it often disappears again if you don’t work to keep it around. If I hadn’t bought that album all those years ago, choosing instead to just listen to it on Soundcloud, I’d have lost it forever. Part of me wonders what else I’ve forgotten that I’ll never experience again because I never followed up on it or made a commitment.

With how much I’ve forgotten about my past, some that I’ve tried to forget and some that just vanished along the way, I’ve got a bunch of half-memories I’m not even sure are true. I for-sure remember going on Hayrides with my original church’s youth ministry group. I remember the faces of the people I met there and the friends I grew apart from as we became teenagers. What I’m not sure I remember is whether or not I had a crush on this one girl in there who may have confessed her feelings for me at the end of the hayride, as I was about to walk home (I lived a few blocks away from the stables that put the event on). I know I never saw her again after that night because her family was moving away and I know that, if I’m remembering events that actually happened and not some amalgamation of dream and memory, I didn’t realize she was confessing feelings until I thought of it sometime in my last two years of college. Can you image how insane I felt? The thought randomly popped into my head, that I’d missed someone confessing their feelings, and I couldn’t tell if it was something that actually happened or if it was a dream that twisted a memory of the last fun I had before a shitty year.

I’d make a joke about getting older, but I have so many similar memories from my childhood and pre-teen years. Things I half-remember spaced throughout a bunch of time I worked pretty hard to forget. Some things come back if I did for them, but I’m always cautious when digging in that particular minefield. I’ve already been devastated by realizations I’d carefully hidden from myself. It sucked and it not something I want to do again, even if one of the therapies I’m doing with my therapist is specifically for digging up and processing these kinds of memories.

I really wish there was a way to find the answer to any question. Google used to feel like that, but I’m pretty sure that’s always been a bunch of garbage. It just seemed like it knew the answer to every question and we were too naive to question whether or not it really did. Now, I’m left wishing that everything I was taught growing up about a wise, powerful figure in an adjacent realm is true so I can eventually learn the answer to every little mystery I’ve encountered. That’d be heaven in my eyes: finally getting all the answers.

 

Morning Coffee

Harris woke to the scent of frying bacon, birdsong, and early-morning sunlight. He blinked his eyes, trying to adjust to the light from the window Linda had thrown open.

“C’mon, get up!”

Harris pulled the blankets over his head. Linda sat down on the bed, pulled the blanket back, and gave him a kiss on the nose. “If you wait too long, breakfast is going to get cold!”

Harris smiled as Linda pulled the sheet back, putting up only a token resistance as she hauled him out of bed. “Alright, alright.” Harris pushed himself to his feet and hugged his wife. “You win.” After putting on his bathrobe and new slippers, he followed his wife’s singing down the stairs to the kitchen. He watched as she flipped pancakes for a moment and then started making coffee. Five minutes later, they were eating.

“I’ve got a few errands to run, Harris, but I’ll be back shortly after one.”

“Alright. I’m going to work on getting our taxes filed after I clean up here. Should be done before you’re back.” He smiled at Linda.

He lifted his mug to take a sip, but the handle slipped in his hands and hot coffee poured into his lap. Even as he leapt out of the chair, part of his brain pulled at him and, instead of a coffee stain on his robe, he was looking at his bedroom.

The shades were drawn and the window was closed. The air smelled faintly of sweat. He looked around his room and tried to see it as he had when he was still asleep. He tried to remember his wife as she had looked that morning, but all he could remember was how her face had looked when she handed him the divorce papers later that day.

Tire Swing

There was a tire swing here once, hanging from a tree on a hill.

The swing was a flying machine, carrying its passengers from the ground into the sky, captained by a laughing child as it flew so high they could touch the clouds. It was a portal to another world, used to pay the entry fee to a land no one but they ever found. It was a seat for eating ice cream on warm summer nights as fireworks exploded above the horizon, cradling its occupant in a world suspended and protected from all the problems of home.

The tree that held it was alone, but stronger for it. It was a stopping point on a speedy descent, providing a place to hide for both children avoiding baths and easter eggs in the spring. A home to birds and squirrels, it stood as a testament to nature’s ability to thrive even in difficult places. It was shade and music on windy summer days.

Now, they are gone. There is nothing left but a bit of moldy rope, a hoop of vulcanized rubber, and the rotting husk of a tree choked by creeping plants and parasites. Long before they fell into disrepair, becoming only their constituent parts, their magic faded. They could no longer be used to hide or to escape and slowly other things took them over. They became only a tire swing hanging from a tree on a hill.

Now, they are that no longer. Now, they are destined for a dumpster as their home is plowed over and prepared for a new life as something else. New seeds are planted and new life is laying its foundations.

There was a tire swing here once, hanging from a tree on a hill. Now, they will become something new.

Poison Drops

These little drops of poison dew
Collect upon my heart.
These little drops are not from you
Nor did you make them start.

No, my dear, they have always been,
So do not shed a tear.
These poison drops feel lesser when
I can hold you near.

These drips have taken no small toll
But they are not a threat.
You need not worry for my soul,
Its strength is greater yet.

I will not lie or hide the pain
Poison drips can cause me
But worry not, they leave no stain
And are temporary.

They’re little remnants of my past
That will not go away.
They do not fall upon me fast
Nor do they overstay.

I’ve lived with them all of my life
And doubt they’ll ever cease
But they are to my wit a knife,
It’s sharpness to increase.

I’ve made my peace with poison drops,
Painful that they may be,
For I have pulled out all the stops
So they may work for me.

I’ll Never Forget

Writing serial fiction is much harder than I anticipated and this particular story is giving me trouble. Since I don’t have that to post yet, have a bright poem about smiles to counteract the miserable winter weather I’m experiencing.


A brief little flash, a proudly-worn curve,
A tentative quirk, a break of reserve:
A twist of the skin caused by a nerve
Is all that I need to blithely observe
The mark of spirit that’s always in style,
That which we so simply call a smile.

I remember much, at least as of yet.
Though places and names, reasons I’m upset,
My first loves, injuries, and childhood regret,
Are all things that I will likely forget;
I will never lose, no matter the while,
The sight of a face creased in a smile.

Review: Stop Dragon My Chair Around

I honestly can’t believe I didn’t hear of The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams until just last year. Well, I should say that I wasn’t really aware of it until last year. I’m pretty sure I’d heard mention of it before, I just didn’t really register it as something I should read, which is surprising. This book (and the subsequent two books in the trilogy) is actually quite famous in a lot of fantasy circles as it was one of the main inspirations for famous authors such as Patrick Rothfuss and George R.R. Martin, urging them to go ahead and write their own fantasy stories. A product of the late 70s and 80s, it followed on the tail of the Tolkien craze but took a firm step in a different direction.

While Tolkien’s works were an attempt to create a mythology for England, inspired by the Nordic cultures around England, The Dragonbone Chair is an adaption of the Arthurian tale mixed with a few popular and more-modern elements, such as politics, character development, and more swords. Everything is better with more swords, generally speaking. Armories, wars, training regimens, the list goes on and this book has them all!

The protagonist of the Dragonbone Chair is a simple kitchen scullion, Simon (or Seoman if you’re using his formal name) as he explores his castle home, rises to become the assistant to a doctor, and then is launched into the wider world by events beyond his control. Throughout it all, he acts exactly like the teenaged city boy he is. He loses track of time and has difficulties with his studies because he is too busy day-dreaming and trying to learn about great battles or magic. He struggles to survive in the wilderness as you’d expect, even though he has some basic survival skills. He is clumsy, but genuinely kind and manages to hold onto that quality as the story progresses and he encounters trouble after trouble.

Simon, and the other characters, are easily my favorite parts of this book. Simon is human, but so is everyone else in the story–even the non-humans. There is a wonderfully diverse cast–mostly in attitude as there are few female characters in this series (I’m pretty sure this book wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test). The main female character, Princess Mirimelle, is introduced later in the book, though she features rather heavily from there on. Mirimelle may make rash decisions just as Simon does, but she is much more deliberate in her choices. Her composure under pressure and in unfamiliar situations provides a calmer contrast to Simon’s more emotionally-driven actions.

All of the characters are wonderful, from the scholars to the soldiers, to the royalty. Every single one of them has their own motivations and goals, but the story does a wonderful job of weaving them all together despite that. Because most of the story is told from the perspective of a younger person, the first half has a pervasive sense that everyone but the protagonist knows exactly what they are doing. Thankfully, this illusion is swiftly dispelled as soon as you start to read chapters or sections from the perspective of other characters, not too far past the halfway point. All of them have their struggles, their failings, and their moments of doubt or weakness.

The biggest problem I had with the story was the pacing. There were a lot of wonderful characters to read about and a lot of very interesting information to take in, but it was actually difficult to sit down and read sometimes. Not because it wasn’t a fun or interesting story, but because there was just so much information imparted in the first third of the book. As short as the book is compared to the final volume in the trilogy, it felt like a much longer read because the pacing and information overload made me want to put it down after an hour so I could rest a bit.

There’s so much to discuss about the book that I’ve had to re-write this review four times to make sure I actually focused on reviewing it rather than geeking out over the mythology and how this story has influenced other stories that I love. I’d rather do that in person, over a beer or a cup of coffee, anyway. I suggest reading the book and then convincing other people you know to read it so you’ve got someone to discuss it with.