Weeks went by, then months. I am speaking of a far-away time – a vanished happiness. It fell to me to befriend, to console with whatever words I could find, one who had been the fairy, the princess, the mysterious love-dream of our adolescence – and it fell to me because my companion had fled. Of that period … what can I say? I’ve kept a single image of that time, and it is already fading: the image of a lovely face grown thin and of two eyes whose lids slowly droop as they glance at me, as if her gaze was unable to dwell on anything but an inner world.
To his surprise, she leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, a kiss so full of affection that it dispelled the awkwardness, even as it caused Miles’s heart to plummet, because all kisses are calibrated and this one revealed the great chasm between affection and love.
I will argue until convinced otherwise that the greatest television show of all time is a children’s show, one that is also perhaps the greatest act of American storytelling in any medium of the last twenty years, and is also one that, I freely admit, I’ve watched to completion no less than three times. Avatar: The Last Airbender isn’t just close to perfect. It is perfect. I can think of only two novels that I consider superior acts of storytelling, and I’ve never met anyone who’s actually watched the show that disagrees. It includes a character arc that puts Jaime Lannister to shame, plots out madness in a way that makes Daenerys Targaryen look silly, has terrifyingly exquisite animation, has no less than six show-stealingly powerful female characters (balancing three poignantly complex male wannabe heroes), and has been known to make grown men and women cry on occasion. It also has a sky bison.
Avatar: The Last Airbender. Trust me.
Good guys lose the Battle of Winterfell. Nearly everyone dies. Jon, Dany, Arya, Sansa, Jaime, Tyrion, and Bran live (Bran only to later reveal that Night King was a victim whose people were slaughtered and whose humanity was stolen and who has suffered immortal human exile and madness for thousands of years and seeks vengeance and death, in that order). Good guys flee to Iron Islands as The Dead move south. At last, Tyrion and Cersei collaborate to destroy (most of) The Dead with wildfire. Cersei finally does one good, noble, human thing in agreeing to work together. Jon faces Night King in single combat amid wildfire and dragon flames. He’s mortally wounded. At the last moment, just as he’s about to die, Jaime Kingslayer kills Night King with a stab from behind. Good guys win. Arya kills Cersei anyway, because: her list. Jaime and Tyrion have mixed feelings. Heartbroken Dany establishes the Two Kingdoms (and eventually Republics), the North, in honor of Jon, to be Queened by Sansa, and the South, also known as the Dragonlands (including Essos/Slaver’s Bay). Dany retreats to Dragonstone where she dies giving birth to Jon’s son, name of Aegon, who will be raised by Regent Tyrion and Varys. Her last dragon, Drogon, grows weak and dies. And like The Bear and The Maiden Fair and the Dance of Dragons, the Song of Ice and Fire is the myth ballad told for thousands of years of how magic disappeared from the world and Westeros transitioned into modernity. Maester Sam writes the book.
See guys, good storytelling isn’t that hard.
For the record:
Dany dies in childbirth
Jon dies in battle
Jamie Kingslayer kills the Night King
Arya kills Cersei wearing Littlefinger’s face
Sansa becomes Queen in the North
The Night King, a Stark, was the first double-duty warg/greenseer
The Three-Eyed Raven is his arch nemesis, the only other double-duty warg/ greenseer
The White Walkers aren’t exterminated, but only retreat until the next long night
The Hound kills The Mountain
Theon sacrifices himself to save his sister
Brienne acquaints herself with Tormund’s member
Tyrion is elected Secretary General of the Westerosi Federation
It is known.
To acquire even a degree of self-control, he had had to ponder the question of life and death for many years, discipline himself at every turn of the road, force himself to undergro the rigors of a samurai’s training. With no training or conscious self-discipline, this woman was able to say without the slightest hesitation that she, too, was prepared to die if he did. Her face expressed perfect serenity, her eyes telling him she was neither lying nor speaking impulsively. She seemed almost happy over the prospect of following him in death. He wondered, with a tinge of shame, how women could be so strong.
I love this book.
I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
In 1986, Ted Hughes wrote this letter to his son, who suffered from depression.
It is a small miracle of words.
I hope things are clearing. It did cross my mind, last summer, that you were under strains of an odd sort. I expect, like many another, you’ll spend your life oscillating between fierce relationships that become tunnel traps, and sudden escapes into wide freedom when the whole world seems to be just there for the taking.
Nobody’s solved it. You solve it as you get older, when you reach the point where you’ve tasted so much that you can somehow sacrifice certain things more easily, and you have a more tolerant view of things like possessiveness (your own) and a broader acceptance of the pains and the losses.
I came to America, when I was 27, and lived there three years as if I were living inside a damart sock — I lived in there with your mother. We made hardly any friends, no close ones, and neither of us ever did anything the other didn’t want wholeheartedly to do.
(It meant, Nicholas, that meeting any female between 17 and 39 was out. Your mother banished all her old friends, girlfriends, in case one of them set eyes on me — presumably. And if she saw me talking with a girl student, I was in court. Foolish of her, and foolish of me to encourage her to think her laws were reasonable. But most people are the same. I was quite happy to live like that, for some years.)
Since the only thing we both wanted to do was write, our lives disappeared into the blank page. My three years in America disappeared like a Rip Van Winkle snooze. Why didn’t I explore America then? I wanted to. I knew it was there. Ten years later we could have done it, because by then we would have learned, maybe, that one person cannot live within another’s magic circle, as an enchanted prisoner.
So take this new opportunity to look about and fill your lungs with that fantastic land, while it and you are still there. That was a most curious and interesting remark you made about feeling, occasionally, very childish, in certain situations.
Nicholas, don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child. To get beyond the age of about eight is not permitted to this primate — except in a very special way, which I’ll try to explain.
When I came to Lake Victoria, it was quite obvious to me that in some of the most important ways you are much more mature than I am. And your self-reliance, your independence, your general boldness in exposing yourself to new and to-most-people-very-alarming situations, and your phenomenal ability to carry through your plans to the last practical detail (I know it probably doesn’t feel like that to you, but that’s how it looks to the rest of us, who simply look on in envy), is the sort of real maturity that not one in a thousand ever come near. As you know.
But in many other ways obviously you are still childish — how could you not be, you alone among mankind? It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle.
But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it.
So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’.
But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But when they too, sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child.
Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced.
Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim.
And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool — for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful.
So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner.
And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears.
And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources—not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy.
That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember.
But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells — he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self — struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence — you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself.
The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.
It was a saying about noble figures in old Irish poems — he would give his hawk to any man that asked for it, yet he loved his hawk better than men nowadays love their bride of tomorrow. He would mourn a dog with more grief than men nowadays mourn their fathers.
And that’s how we measure out our real respect for people — by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate — and enjoy.
End of sermon. As Buddha says: live like a mighty river. And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you.
Fitting words together makes time go through narrower pipes but faster.
…David Mitchell, Black Swan Green
Nena Daconte was almost a child, with the eyes of a happy bird, and molasses skin still radiant with the bright Caribbean sun in the mournful January gloom, and she was wrapped up to her chin in a mink coat that could not have been bought with the year’s wages of the entire frontier garrison. Her husband, Billy Sánchez De Ávila, who drove the car, was a year younger and almost as beautiful, and he wore a plaid jacket and a baseball hat. Unlike his wife, he was tall and athletic and had the iron jaw of a timid thug. But what best revealed the status of them both was the silver automobile whose interior exhaled a breath of living animal; nothing like it had ever been seen along that impoverished border. The rear seat overflowed with suitcases that were too new and many gift boxes that were still unopened. It also held the tenor saxophone that had been the overriding passion of Nena Daconte’s life before she succumbed to the disquieting love of her tender beach hoodlum.
The main thing was I learned how to inhabit my song.
Which means what?
Well. Singers can have a wide range of…it can be John Lydon and the Sex Pistols or you can have Dylan’s voice or Neil Young’s voice, all very very unconventional voices. But they were people who simply inhabited their songs, deeply, deeply, and very very well…so that when your audience heard you, you were convincing. What you were singing about was believable and convincing. That’s the key to a great singer. A great singer has to learn how to inhabit a song. You may not be able to hit all the notes, that’s okay. You may not have the clearest tone, may not have the greatest range, but if you can inhabit your song…you can communicate. There’s plenty of people who do the other things well and will never be great singers. In rock music, you have to be able to personify what you’re singing about.