I’ll never forget the first time I cried during a live action movie.
I’d cried at animated movies before, of course. The classic tearjerkers – Bambi, The Lion King, and of course The Land Before Time. But live action movies hadn’t hit me the same way. Probably a large part of that was the kind of movies my parents let me see when I was young – the live action ones weren’t exactly tearjerkers. That was until 1997, when my parents took me to see Titanic. I was ten, it was the biggest movie around, and I think they were thinking that it’d be a nice way for me to absorb some history.
Most boys in my age range don’t remember much about that film besides the scene. You know the one I’m talking about if you’ve seen the film. “Draw me like one of your French girls.” If you haven’t seen the film, it involves a naked woman, so of course early pubescent boys remember it well. I’m not gonna pretend that didn’t stick with me. But that wasn’t the scene that stuck with me, and certainly wasn’t the scene that made me cry. Nor was it the scenes of horror and death. Those were in their own way traumatic, but some part of me even knew then that this was a film, that these were actors, and that they were all going to be fine, so there was a disconnect.
No, the part where I started to bawl like the child I was happened during a very specific scene during the sinking of the ship.
That’s right. The ship is sinking around them, and these brave, beautiful sons of bitches are sitting on the deck, calmly playing their instruments. There was something painfully, tragically beautiful in that moment that spoke to some part of my young soul. Well, I say spoke, but it would be more accurate to say it drove a dagger into my tiny heart. There was nothing they could do. The ship was going under. There weren’t enough lifeboats. They knew they were doomed, and how did they spend their last moments? Did they weep for their fate? Did they try to jostle their way onto one of the lifeboats? Did they rail against a God that surely seemed absent?
They started to walk away and then, realizing there was nothing they could do…they made music for a few hundred people that were scared out of their minds, and then at the end just said “Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight.” I didn’t even really understand then why I was crying. It just stuck with me, something I was too young to understand but just old enough to know meant…something. Something big and hard to grasp and terribly, terribly sad.
I didn’t know it then, but it was my first experience with adult sorrow.
Lately I’ve thought about that scene a lot. It certainly feels like the ship is sinking around us, only the ship in this case is the whole planet. For a year that started with wildfires across Australia in January and now, only 3 months and several disasters later, has us mixed in the middle of the worst pandemic we’ve seen in over a hundred years, I don’t think anyone can be blamed for feeling helpless and anxious.
It’s made writing hard. Really hard.
Writing for me is a catharsis, a way of looking at things in the world and dealing with them through metaphor and allegory. Small Worlds is, fundamentally, a story about sometimes it feels like the only thing we can control is exactly how everything falls apart, and finding a certain kind of power with that. The Dragon’s Scion is, at the end of the day, a story about how our lives feel controlled by seemingly remorseless beings whose motives are so difficult to grasp that they feel alien, but we still can stand against them. A Staff of Crystal and Bone is, at its core, how we get lost in the superficial trappings of evil. Tamer of the Beasts is about how the bonds we forge between us are stronger than the terror. Also, it’s about how much I like Pokemon. I’ll be honest.
And it hasn’t felt cathartic lately. I don’t feel in control of even how things end. I don’t feel we can stand against the people that run our lives. I feel like the trappings of evil are becoming the reality of evil, and the line is more blurred than I ever thought. And now, with isolation as I await test results, I’ve never felt more disconnected from those bonds
I’ve kept at it for my readers, and I cannot tell you how grateful I am for all of you. I don’t know how I would have gotten through some of the stuff I’ve been through without knowing you’re out there – but I was lacking direction and purpose to it. I knew where the stories were going, but I didn’t know why I was telling them. Sure, it’d be nice to be able to write full time, but that’s a mercantile goal and a distant one at that. I wasn’t getting the immediate catharsis, and so it was becoming difficult.
I hit a real despair point the last couple of weeks. I have chronic respiratory problems and I’m a cancer survivor. I’m basically a model for “still gets serious COVID-19 even though outside the in danger age demographic.” On top of that, I work in a field that has been classified as essential and one that has not yet transitioned to working from home, so I was basically getting constant dread that I’d catch it.
Then I started to get sick. I didn’t meet the qualifications for COVID testing, but I had a cough, shortness of breath, and a fever that wasn’t quite high enough to meet minimum CDC requirements.
That was…that was rock bottom, I’m not going to sugar coat it. Everything seemed pointless. I was just waiting for my symptoms to get worse, for my health to deteriorate, and was wondering if I was going to end up with permanent lung damage, on a respirator for the rest of my life, or if I was just going to die.
I’ve mentioned before I have anxiety problems, right? I don’t claim these are rational fears. I know I’m probably going to be fine. But that’s where my brain was going. That was how I was feeling. And, in spite of what Hollywood would like to tell you, creeping existential dread is not a mental state I find conducive to writing. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Then, the other night, laying around and coughing if I tried to move too much, I decided to rewatch Titanic. It was available, it was there, and it was a long movie so I could completely space out while Loki laid on my lap.
And then I got to the scene, and it clicked for me.
Those violinists couldn’t do anything to save anyone. They had musical instruments in a crisis. What else could they do? Plug the hole with bowstrings? Fashion a raft out of violins? Of course not. They were absolutely helpless in the chaos around them.
Except they weren’t.
They could bring art to people among the chaos. It would be a bittersweet art, because it solved nothing, but it might make people forget their fears for a bit. It might make them take a deep breath and feel a sense of calm.
We aren’t on a sinking ship. We, as a planet and as a people, have survived disasters before. But everything is changing around us so rapidly that it’s hard not to give into despair, to feel like the icy water is welling up around us and the deck is tilting a little bit more with every passing second and soon we won’t be able to stop from sliding beneath the waves.
I don’t have an answer for you about that fear. I’m not a policymaker, I’m not someone in a position of power. I’m just a guy on the internet. I don’t even have a violin, and couldn’t play it if I did.
All I have are my words.
But words were among the first tools humans had to beat back the darkness. When we were huddled around flames, we had stories about what might be waiting for us in the shadows and how to stay safe from them. When the heavens churned with dark clouds and let loose electrical forces we couldn’t begin to comprehend, we had stories about the gods to explain them. When the earth shook from tectonic action on scales were couldn’t imagine, we had stories about angry spirits that had to be appeased. When disease ravaged those early tribes, we had stories about how we could survive.
And when those stories failed, we had stories about heroes. We had Gilgamesh and Heracles and Beowulf and Brigit and Sampson and Fong Sai-Yuk and Mwindo. We had these larger than life figures who could vie with the gods directly, who would go into the underworld and find a cure for the plague, who could stop the shaking Earth with their bare hands, who could woo the spirits and calm them.
Stories were our first weapons against despair. We were perfectly functional apes that made the terrible mistake of becoming smart enough to ask “why?” and for the things that were too big for our understanding to grasp, we had stories.
That doesn’t work as well in modern times. Science has taken the place of stories. Don’t get me wrong, it’s better than stories because it offers solutions. We can’t stop a storm, but we can build our buildings to withstand them. We have bottled the lightning we once feared and used it to reveal what lurks in the darkness, and know they’re only shadows and sometimes the cat. The Earth may still tremble, but we can predict it better than ever and rebuild faster than ever before. And when a plague ravages our village, a village that has grown so large we call it the global community, science will find the vaccines and machines and medication we need to survive. Not by going into the underworld, but by taking apart the plague and finding its weaknesses and arming us.
But stories have one advantage. They’re fast. Science takes time. It’s a process of trial and error and knowledge and experimentation.
I can’t give you stories that explain what’s going on. That’s a job for scientists. I certainly can’t offer you a solution. I can do one thing. I can sit on the deck and play my violin. I can give you the peace of not having to think about what’s going on around you, and in doing so I can find my purpose.
This will be my last post about COVID-19, at least as far as the normal Sunday/Wednesday updates to this blog go. If I have something that I absolutely have to say about what’s going on in the world, I’ll do it as a bonus blog post. It’s not my place to alarm you. It’s not why I’m on this chair, running my bow along the strings.
I’m here to tell you a story or two. Or four. Probably more. I’m going to keep telling you stories until we right this ship, or we build enough lifeboats. I’m not going to worry about the waves that seem closer, or the deck that seems just a tiny bit steeper every day. I’m going to trust in the people who have power to influence those things to do so, and I’m going to trust that if they fail, it’s not the end. The world has never, in spite of how often it felt like it, ended. It’s only changed, and no matter how frightening that change may seem from this side, on the other side we will find beauty in new things. We will see a new sunrise, hopefully wiser from the experience. The dark waves that seemed so imminent will become another specter we banished with our science and until we do, we’ll keep at bay with our stories.
And we will have new stories. I’ll have new stories for you, you’ll have new stories for me, and we will sit around this worldwide campfire we call the Internet to tell them to each other. I look forward to hearing yours. I can’t wait to see what stories I have then to share with you.
But for now…I’m going to keep playing on the deck. Updates are going to get back on track, because now I know why I’m doing it. I’ll be adding more books to my roster. I invite you to sit and listen. There may be tears. There may be laughter. There may, God help us, be screams. But there definitely will be excitement and hope and heroes and maybe, if we’re all very lucky, buried somewhere in there will be a kernel of truth. Not the hard objective truth of science, but the ephemeral truth of the cavemen huddled around the campfire. The truths we call love and beauty and joy and art. The immeasurable truth that while the tragic beauty of the music on the sinking ship is, yes, tragic, that doesn’t mean we should forget it is still beautiful.
Because, at the end of it all, it’ll have been a privilege playing with you tonight.