I’m a nerd who likes lots of stuff, often with worrying levels of intensity. My job is to fix peoples problems without rolling my eyes. I make a okay living doing it, which is okay because I spend most of my time working or reading or writing or watching things or playing stuff or eating dinner with friends, not expensive stuff like attending a caviar tasting on the Orient Express while plotting a murder. I have lived up to none of my father’s expectations. I love Memphis in the way you wish your cat loved you but never will because he’s a cat and just thinks of you as a mobile grocery store and hot water bottle. Welcome to my brain.
When I was almost eleven years old, I picked up a book in Davis Kidd Booksellers, where my grandmother regularly took me to find something new to feed my insatiable appetite for stories. On the cover was a boy in glasses riding a broom almost directly into the ground while a unicorn ran away in the background. I cracked it open to read the first few, dull lines about a perfectly normal little burg in England. I’m incredibly grateful that I didn’t stop there. Midway through the chapter, I could see the magic leaking into the scene, as one character put streetlights out with the flick of a small device and another turned from a cat into a stern-looking woman. A moment later, I knew that a one year old’s parents had been murdered, and, then, that the boy was being left with his relatives. Almost at the end of the chapter, I thought the story was interesting, but nothing special. Ready to set the book back on the shelf, I read the final line of the chapter. It was this line that I would often remember for the next twenty years when life seemed to be at its worst. Speaking about Harry Potter, a newly minted orphan, sitting alone on the doorstep of people who would never really care for him, it says this:
He couldn’t know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: “To Harry Potter – the boy who lived!”
The boy who lived. How could I know how important that title would be to me? It fascinated me then that there would be a hero who was not famous for his strength or wisdom or bravery. I thirsted for those attributes, as I had seen them in nearly every book I had read to date. I was a boy who turned to books because I was weak and small and lonely. I wanted to be strong, wise, and brave because people who are all of those things have friends who not just hear but listen to them when they speak, and the time they spend together is intimate and cherished. The people who are none of those things are forgotten in the chaos of life, people like me.
As I grew, Harry did, too, and every year brought new challenges and lessons for both of us. Through those books, I learned real truths about the world around me. In those first few years together, I learned that every triumph comes at a cost and that the right thing to do and the easy thing to do are rarely the same. As a teenager, I found that peoples’ trust in you is only as good as your reputation and your reputation can be as easily damaged by others’ fear and envy as by your own carelessness. When I was twenty, I read the final book, and finally understood something that had eluded me through the decade between that first moment in the book store and this one.
I, like those nameless people in the first chapter of the first book, had thought the boy who lived referred to a single event, but Harry is not the boy who lived once. He is the boy who continues to live, through every hardship, loss, and cruelty that life can throw at him, and, in it all, he is not endlessly resilient. He breaks like you or I do, but he always knits himself back together with the scars showing. He wears them like badges of honor.
There is an art known at Kintsugi where they take a piece of pottery that has been broken and glue the pieces back together with lacquer containing gold dust. In breaking and being reformed, the piece is transformed from something common into something truly special. The fix does not hide the broken places. It highlights them. It says to the world that it is not nor will it ever be the same as it was, but there is no shame in its brokenness. From that first night as a baby, Harry carried a scar on his forehead, a constant reminder of the parents he would never know. Throughout the series, he collected more scars, not all of them outwardly visible. He gained and lost a godfather, as well as friends and mentors, whose losses he suffered for both good, noble reasons or, as is often the way of things, no discernible reason at all. He carried more scars on his heart than he ever did on his skin, and, through it all, he continued to live up to his title.
A year before I read the final book, I had been in the hospital for my heart, a condition that they could never adequately explain. It set off an anxiety disorder in me that would plague me for years, and, to this day, still rears its head when I am least prepared. In the decade since then, my heart has broken many more times, though a hospital stay could cure none of these, each time falling from a higher precipice of hope and shattering more completely. In these times, I think back to that first chapter I read in the book store. I think how I often I feel just as weak and small and lonely as that eleven year old boy, and I think about what Harry tried to teach me for a decade. When you are broken, gather up your pieces and glue them together with gold. Let them see that you are not nor ever will be the same as you were, but there is no shame in your brokenness. Not everyone will understand, but those that have the eye for it -perhaps with hearts laced with gold themselves- will see that you are more than a boy with a scar. They’ll know that you are the boy who lived.
I stood in the shadows between the pool cues and a table occupied by a lone drunk. The drunk was staring, dumbfounded at me as he had been for the better part of half an hour, but I wasn’t bothered. Everybody stared, and the drunks stared more than the rest, since they had lost every vestige of self-respect that would have caused a pang of guilt to course through them for staring at a freak like me. I’ve gotten used to the stares. It’s the overwhelming number of drunks that bothers me.
In this Godforsaken country, if you couldn’t handle the stress of working at the plant, you turned to drink. It happened to everyone after a while. When there’s only one game in town, they make the rules, and those rules were ruthless. Thirty-six hour shifts and only twelve hours between them to sleep, or, more commonly, drink until you finally fell into some sort of unconsciousness. No breaks, no meals, no excuses. You drank to keep the sting of a worthless life from getting to you. Finally, when the drink stopped working, you would just walk outside, into the cold, and die.
The Big Man doesn’t give a shit about the drunks, I thought, They’re just numbers to him. Acceptable losses.
My teeth ground as I thought about the Big Man sitting in his warm office while every other living creature within a hundred miles or more worked endlessly to fulfill his vision. Then, everyone would bow and scrape when he appeared, smiling at the filthy, exhausted workers as though he were their proud father and they his favored children. Well, almost everyone would scrape. Some of us knew better. Some of us wouldn’t take it anymore. I took a deep breath; I had to focus. This was an important day, years in coming. Today, the Big Man was going to die.
The door creaked. None of the drunks turned their heads, but my eyes flicked toward it, now standing wide open. A dusting of snow drifted like a puff of fog into the dive. It had been a gust of wind, nothing more. The bouncer, thick-necked and over-muscled, slammed the door with a flick of his wrist from his perch at the end of the bar.
“Damn it…” I whispered under my breath.
I needed to keep it together. This was the first time I had ever attempted to pull a job this big, but it was a logical step. The Big Man was a pig that needed to get stuck. He needed to die, and I was the one who would do it… with some help. I was anxious for the first of my guests to arrive. I had only communicated with two of the three of them through very secure channels, never face-to-face. I was nervous about meeting them for the first time. The tinkling chime of the wall clock announced the hour. Before the light, brassy tones faded, someone spoke right beside me, just outside of my peripheral vision.
“You must be the employer,” uttered a small, unnerving voice.
Even before I turned to see the speaker, I knew who it was, and I shivered, inwardly. My eyes fell upon the speaker’s fragile-looking form. They called him the Iceman. I had thought the name silly and overly dramatic until the moment I had laid eyes on him. The man was cold. Colder than the dead. Like someone who had never truly been alive. Though, to an outsider, it might look like I could crush him with a step, the Iceman had depths to him that couldn’t be seen but were easily felt. I could sense the kind of uncaring evil that lurked in this man’s frozen heart. I didn’t even bother to question how he had sneaked up on me, in spite of the single entrance and the fact that my back was toward a wall.
“G…good to meet you,” I said, stammering and too quickly.
He offered me a sickly smile but said nothing more. He would be the greaseman for this job. Getting to the Big Man was almost impossible, especially at this time of year, but, at just one moment this season, he would be at his most vulnerable. It was crunch time at the plant. With everyone stressing about their jobs, working extra hours, and generally doing everything they could to heighten their chances of having an aneurism, at a particular moment every year, security around the Big Man was lax. It would be tonight, just before he would step out of the hallway that connected his office to the large, open yard next to the plant to give another artfully crafted annual lie, in which he would applaud everyone’s work ethic, remind them how important each of them was, and then smile and wave as the masses wept at his presence and cheered for him. Everyone who lived under our beloved despot’s rule was required to attend. In fact, everyone was required to be in the yard at attention before the Big Man stepped out to make his speech. Everyone. This included his bodyguards. That would give us between fourteen and twenty seconds to get to him when he was alone listening to the crowd chant his name over and over like mindless drones.
The Iceman’s job was to make sure we got in cleanly, without any fuss or disturbance. He would give us the path to follow, the info about patrols we would run into, and watch posts we had to avoid. He also had ensured that certain doors would be unlocked at the right moments and certain eyes would be turned away where distraction was more profitable than plucking them out. In fact, his job was really done, but he would still be coming with us in order to make any last minute changes to the route, should the need arise.
The Iceman sat down on the opposite side of the table that was closest to me, after only the shortest of glances at the nearby drunk caused him to rise and wobblingly flee to another part of the dive. He had sat in the only seat that would put his back toward the door, as if he was trying to make a point that he had nothing to fear from anything that lay out in the cold. Perhaps he didn’t, but I didn’t have much of a chance to think about it before the door crashed open at the behest of a gigantic boot. The door clanged against the side wall and made that odd, high-pitched ringing that all very heavy doors do when roughly handled. In stepped a large man who was totally out of place anywhere within the domain of our Dear Leader. He wore a thick coat fashioned from some unrecognizable white fur and dark hide. From the tufts of fur that poked from his enormous boots, it was obvious that they were also lined with the strange fur. Those accessories would have been the first and most prominent clues to the identity of this foreign traveler, if he had not also been carrying the largest rifle I had ever seen. It looked like it had been forged of midnight steel and designed exclusively to hunt dinosaurs from a great distance… possibly across time.
He took the weapon from his shoulder and marched slowly toward the table the Iceman occupied. The man sat in the chair to the Iceman’s left, and, after placing the butt of his rifle on the floor near his foot, rested its barrel against his right thigh while letting his hand drift, almost lazily, down to rest on the rifle’s bolt. While apparently relaxed, this position seemed almost more menacing to me than it would have had his hand been on the trigger and the barrel pointed between my eyes. He nodded to the Iceman, more in reflex than any sort of camaraderie, and then set his eyes on me.
He had a name, once. A real one. There are legends that say he sold it for his nightmare rifle or that he gave it to a witch in trade for the means to slay a monster or that, in a fit of greed, he sold his family for gold and silver and, after he returned to his senses, couldn’t face the name any longer. Every legend is different in some way or other, but they all agree on one part: he gave up his name. For some reason, that was most frightening to me. In any case, most people that spoke of him at all (and that wasn’t many) called him Red, almost assuredly because of his jarring, flame-red hair. I nodded to him.
“Red… is it?” I said, trying to maintain a firm tone.
He shrugged, saying nothing.
Red was our demo. What the Iceman was to getting us in to kill the Big Man, Red was to getting us out. The problem was, where getting in required finesse, getting out required firepower. Luckily, Red was nothing but firepower. After the Big Man was dead, we wouldn’t have enough time to sneak back out of the plant grounds. After a pause of maybe only half a minute where the Big Man didn’t appear, one of the bodyguards would stick his head into the door to make sure everything was alright. They would have us, then. The most obvious exit route was to make our way back through the plant and out the same way we had come in as speedily as we possibly could. We all knew that there was no chance in hell we would make it all the way back through the plant without someone triggering a lockdown. Red had come up with a rather simple solution. He suggested that we leave the same way the Big Man was going to leave, through the door at the end of the hall. Of course, that is after I set up shaped charges by the door and blow anyone standing within thirty feet to hell, Red had added in his last communication to me. With little other choice, I had agreed.
With two of the three members of the team sitting somewhat uncomfortably at the table, the last member stood up from his seat at the end of the bar. He grabbed his drink and performed a sort of shuffling walk toward the table, his brutish form larger if not quite as tall as Red’s. I had known the bouncer of this dive since we were kids, both thrown into the world far before our time. We had relied on each other since that time to scrape by, and had become something like brothers in the process. He had a name that he had hated since he was born, but, after he patched me up and pulled two loose teeth that I earned from a messy landing during one of our early jobs, I called him Doc. The name stuck, and he was good-humored about it, as with most things. For being so brutishly large, almost in the styling of lowland gorillas, he was fairly gentle. That is, unless he was working.
As a bouncer, he wouldn’t just sling you out the door for causing trouble. He would make sure you remembered what had happened for days, if not weeks or months. For the job, he was the muscle. This wasn’t a role with which he was unfamiliar. He and I had worked together on many other jobs over the years. Each time, he performed as though he was on a mission from God. On the job, he was a berserker, but, though he played up the meathead angle to throw people off guard, he wasn’t stupid. He was far from it, actually. When we were kids, he would talk about wanting to practice medicine of one type or another. I always knew he was capable of it, but schools aren’t very accommodating to those who have left the Big Man’s service, even if it wasn’t their choice… even if they were just kids at the time. Doc made the best of it, though. He had learned much on his own, and, to my knowledge, might be the most skilled medic around. He still liked cracking skulls too much to give it up, though, which suited our purposes just fine. We needed him to break arms, now, but, later, we very well might need him to bandage us up and sew us back together.
Doc sat down across from Red, grinning stupidly at both of the other team members. Neither of them even bothered to glance his way. I approached the remaining empty spot at the table. After looking at all three of them, pausing briefly to hold a moment of eye contact with each, I spoke.
“In forty minutes, we are going to fulfill years of planning. This has to be perfect. Are there any questions?”
“Yes…” said the Iceman, “…We have not discussed how we will be getting to the grounds or how we will be leaving.”
“Well, that’s obvious isn’t…” Doc began, but I cut him off.
“I will be providing transport there. Our vehicle is waiting outside. Leaving the grounds would have been a problem, but I believe we will be able to commandeer the vehicle of our… target.”
“And you can handle that all by yourself, can you?” said Red, roughly.
Doc finally got a word in edgewise, “He’s the best there is, was, or ever will be.”
“Thank you for the vote of confidence, Doc,” I said, without letting my eyes drift from Red’s, “Yes, I can.”
Red and the Iceman seemed to accept this. Without another work, Red picked up his monstrous weapon, and walked outside, presumably to retrieve whatever explosives he had brought along for the job. A moment later, the Iceman retreated to our vehicle claiming that the dive was “overly warm”. I waited for Doc to finish his drink before starting outside. He stopped me with a word.
I turned around, my left brow raised questioningly at the concern in his voice when he spoke my name.
“Rudy, even if this goes off without a hitch…”
“Yes?” I replied.
“They’re still going to know it was you who killed him. Hell, they might know it was all of us, but they are, for sure, going to know it was you. You’re too recognizable… You know…”
He tapered off. I said nothing.
“They’re going to come after you. Hard. They aren’t going to stop until they have your head. You’ve got to see that.”
“I know, Doc. Still, it has to be done.”
“Why? Why does it have to be done? Why do we have to be the ones to do it?” Doc was visibly upset, now.
“He took everything away from me, Doc. Everything!” I realized I was yelling and lowered my voice to a harsh whisper. “He turned everyone away from me. He turned my parents away from me. He made them turn me out into the cold. He is a monster. A beast. He has created a society that can’t handle the slightest variation. Don’t you remember how he kicked you out of school, Doc? For what? Being smart?”
“I know. I know,” Doc said with his hands raised, “I get it, Rudy. You know that I get it. You know that I remember. I also remember how we found each other in the cold. How we survived.”
“It doesn’t matter that we lived, Doc. How many others died alone before and after we found each other? How many more have to be turned out when they’re nothing but kids. How many have to walk out into the cold because the drink won’t help anymore before someone stands up and says ‘No more’? This needs to be done. It’s too late to back out now.”
I stared at him, knowing that he could see the fire in my eyes. He hung his head in defeat or acceptance; I couldn’t tell which.
“You’re right. It’s time to end it,” Doc said. Then he paused for a brief moment before starting again, with the rumor of a smile on his lips, “If this does work out like you’ve planned, after we kill the Big Man, blow a hole in the side of the plant, and come running out, you at our head, one thing’s for damn sure.”
I spoke with a little more lightness in my voice, “What’s that?”
He looked right into my eyes and quirked a grin, “After they catch a load of that, Rudy, you are definitely going to be the most infamous reindeer of all.”
He grinned at me for a moment, and then we both turned toward the door, exiting into the peculiarly foggy evening.
Every year, and I mean every year, I hear the same argument start sometime in October or November. It used to just be a lot of “Keep the Christ in Christmas!” shouting. Now, people are angry over cups that don’t have snowflakes and gingerbread men on them. They don’t understand that Xmas is the correct Greek shorthand for Christmas, and isn’t sacrilegious at all. They even go so far as to demonize other holidays that occur near Christmas as some sort of usurper upstarts, because they either forgot or never learned that Christmas is on December 25th because the early church wanted to stop people from celebrating the much more popular Roman holiday The Feast of the Unconquered Sun, which had occupied the date for centuries. People are angry about words, images, plays, and songs. I’m angry, too.
I’m angry that when I greet people with a Merry Christmas, certain people will nod in approval, as if I have done something correct rather than something kind. I’m angry that people tell me what they have contributed to charity this year, as if it’s noble rather than something that is required of all people with enough to give. I’m angry that people use this time of year especially to pervert words like kindness when they mean pity or joy when they mean luxury. I’m angry that I’m angry. I’m angry that I do all these things that make me angry, too.
I used to believe in something. At least, I think I did. I believed in the magic. I believed that Christmas was the best holiday because of presents and food and movies and music and having a break from school. I used to believe in something. Then, sometime when I was ten or twelve or somewhere around there, I started to see the silver tarnish. The beautiful wrapping paper started to tear, and I saw what was underneath. It was a holiday made of half-truths and knowing winks. I was being fooled, and I couldn’t say anything because it would mean that the holiday where I got to eat as much as I wanted, the holiday where I got presents might be ruined. I realized that the magic was fragile.
In The Polar Express, this doubt is represented by an inability to hear Santa’s sleigh-bells. The hero of the story, a boy whose name we never learn, struggles with his doubt, fearing that, should he ask his parents about the nature of Christmas, it would mean an end to the magic. Throughout the story, he encounters representations of those traits that become grating when the magic loses its luster, childish avarice and starry-eyed excitement, and he also encounters the traits he most fears taking over, depression and cynicism.
Near the end of the film, where the boy is surrounded by true believers, he looks up to see the sleigh-bells being rung and everyone around him saying how beautiful they sounded. He could not hear them. A bell breaks off and comes rolling toward him. The boy picks it up and rings it but hears nothing. This is the moment that a fun family film becomes a great film, one that I love. The boy, at the edge of tears, closes his eyes and, with the pain of growing up in his voice, whispers, “I believe. I believe.” With that, he rings the bell again. The others were right. The sound is beautiful.
I had spent so much time worrying that I would do or say or think the wrong thing, and that would shatter the fragile magic. What I failed to realize was that, while I focused on myself, on my thoughts and my actions, the magic had already been broken. But, much like a stone table in another novel about the true meaning of Christmas, beneath the broken surface of the magic I had relied on for so many years, there was a deeper magic. It was a magic that could not be bought or sold. It wasn’t encountered while eating or singing carols. It was and is the gift of peace.
Maybe the reason that what we perceive as the magic of Christmas fades to doubt over the years is because we can’t find that magic in food or presents or other people or anything as simple as that. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to get angry. It’s easy to point fingers at the ones who you think are attacking your holiday. It’s easy for me to point fingers at people I think are missing the point of Christmas. It’s easy to be angry. It’s hard to feel peace. It’s hard to understand that freedom is admitting you don’t have or need control. It’s hard to accept that the way I feel about people who proclaim their righteousness is just as self-righteous as their Facebook posts. It’s hard to admit that we can’t take Christ out of Christmas, because we didn’t put him in it. So, instead of admitting that the magic doesn’t need our protection, we begin to doubt its very existence. One by one, we fall away.
There’s a line at the very end of The Polar Express spoken by the narrator after the boy shares his bell with his sister and parents. His sister, Sarah, hears it, but his parents don’t and assume the bell is broken.
“At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”
On Christmas day, I celebrate the gift I was given. It was not a gift in name only. It was a true gift. It was a gift that I couldn’t buy myself. It was the gift of deep magic, of peace, of being known. It was the gift of love in the face of my self-righteousness. It was the gift of never being alone again, not in this life and not after. Yet, even still, with all of my self-assurance, I still find myself often holding the bell to my ear, closing my eyes, and, just before ringing it, whispering the only two words that ever truly mattered: I believe.
I struggle to feel happy during the Christmas season. I know that’s not exactly a radical statement. Most people have issues with one thing or another during the holiday. Maybe your family isn’t awesome to be around. Maybe your spouse’s family is terrible. Maybe you don’t have a family. There are many other common issues. It’s a tough time. For me, I’m single (ladies?), and Christmas shines a huge light on that fact. I don’t get questions like, “When are you going to find a girlfriend?” or the like. Nobody asks. I don’t mind. Everyone in my family is married except for me, and I’m happy for all of them. Most of my friends are married. I’m happy for them, too, except for Harrison and Melanie who rub their happiness in everyone’s faces. They can burn in Hell. I’m not bitter, though. I just haven’t met the right person or anime bodypillow.
I’m also fat. Not dying of a heart attack tomorrow fat, but fat nonetheless. Normally, I can ignore it, eat a salad, and pretend a short-haired Natalie Portman would date me. During the holidays, I’m given no opportunity to forget the fatness. Everyone has collectively decided that Christmas is the time to force loaves of sugar bread on everyone else. I don’t want your sugar bread. I want short-haired Natalie Portman! I can’t say no, though. It’s all there seems to be to eat. From Thanksgiving until New Years, it’s all sugar bread topped with sugar milk. Even the ham comes with sugar sauce, and every bloating bite I take is a reminder that I will be alone forever, unless I meet the right person or anime bodypillow.
In this lonely, diabetic time, I keep my spirits up by watching Christmas movies. That’s not true at all. I keep my spirits up by being hilarious and awesome, but it’s a good segue into talking about Christmas movies. It is true that I watch a lot of Christmas movies, though. I have several favorites, a few of which I’ll talk about this month. The one I’m writing about today, Ernest Saves Christmas, doesn’t rank as high as The Muppet Christmas Carol or Polar Express do on my list, but it’s still a great one.
Ernest Saves Christmas doesn’t really have a great message, like a lot of other Christmas movies. It isn’t wistful or dramatic. It’s not well shot, nor is it well acted by most of the cast. The only decent performance is by Jim Varney who plays Ernest. Maybe that’s why I like it. It’s a Christmas movie that doesn’t follow any of the guidelines of a Christmas movie. It doesn’t get too preachy or heavy handed. It’s just really, really funny.
There are two scenes that really exemplify the greatness of this Christmas movie, and neither is about Christmas. Neither involves the Jim Varney playing the Ernest character, either, at that. The first scene involves Ernest trying to find the location of another character. He dresses up as Varney’s Auntie Nelda character. Before I recently rewatched this movie, I had forgotten that this scene was in Ernest Saves Christmas. It has nothing to do with Christmas, doesn’t involve any other characters, and barely moves the plot. In spite of that, it exemplifies the mood of this movie where a scene doesn’t have to make sense to fit in, as long as it’s funny. The line that kills me is “I’ll be dead soon.”
The other scene that makes this movie for me is when Ernest is trying to sneak Santa into a movie studio for reasons that only make sense if you watch the movie. In order to get by the gate guard, Varney plays a snake farmer. Or is it snake rancher? Do you ranch snakes? He plays a snake rancher who’s delivering poisonous snakes to a horror movie. As funny as the majority of the scene is, the best part is the final few seconds where he begins singing the classic hymn Rock of Ages.
Did you know that, on a dark night, you can see the flicker of a candle flame up to about 30 miles away? This month, I planned to talk about four Christmas movies off my long list of favorites. Ernest Saves Christmas isn’t in the top ten, but it’s still a great movie to get you into the spirit of Christmas, if only because the spirit of Christmas isn’t just about feeling grateful. It’s not just love and kindness. Christmas is also about laughter. For me, a big part of the Christmas spirit involves looking at my life, my singleness, my fatitude and finding the joke in it. That’s what Christmas is, seeing the hopeful flicker of light in the darkness. If that doesn’t fill you with laughter, then you’re dead inside.
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
I am a big fan of great opening lines. If I have not said it here before, then let me say it now: words are magic. At a basic level, they can transfer knowledge from one person to another without the two ever needing to meet. One of the people could even be dead at the time and communicate with another person living in the distant future. At a higher level, though, words can do more than just transmit information. They can make you think new thoughts, thoughts that weren’t in your head before reading the words. They can make you feel things. They can be used to put you on the right track or to fool you and draw you astray. Words hurt and heal, lift up and cast down, broaden horizons and crush your dreams. Don’t believe me? Think back to a time when you walked up to someone with hope and courage and asked them to go to coffee with you or to dinner or to bed, for that matter. Think about how it felt when they said a single word: No. One word, and everything you wanted, the potential future you had built in your head, was gone in an instant, like magic. Words are magic, the words that open a story doubly so.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
Mother died today.
You know that feeling you get when you haven’t eaten in a while? You’re really hungry, craving just about anything, and you finally take a bite of something too sweet. It’s so good, but it also almost causes your mouth to seize up, too. It’s like your stomach is overly excited to get any sort of food, your brain is overly excited to get sugar, and your mouth can’t handle the overload of simultaneous need and fulfillment so it shuts down for a second. That’s how I feel when I read these opening lines. That first one, though. That one’s my favorite.
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The line both sets the scene and the mood. Wherever the hand resides and to whomever the hand belongs, it is in darkness, and it holds a weapon. With one compound sentence, Neil Gaiman delivers us into a space of dread. He didn’t say a terrified man or woman is shakingly holding on to the knife to defend him/herself, ala Wendy from The Shining. Instead, he just mentions a hand, malevolent in its simplicity. There is still hope after this one line that the knife is being held in protection rather than more sinister motives. Gaiman continues:
The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.
The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.
With that, any lingering hope that the knife was wielded by a hero or desperate innocent is gone. Now we, with full knowledge of the nature of our knife wielder, must sit and watch the horrors we feared play out on the page. This is the beginning of my favorite book, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.
The first time I finished the book, I closed the cover, set it on the table next to me, and cried my eyes out for about half an hour, which I admit is an odd reaction to a book containing werewolves and night-gaunts and witches. Then, I picked it back up, and read it again. I repeated this cycle a few more times within the span of a week before admitting that I had found the perfect book. It was the book that I had been searching for, even though I didn’t know I had been searching for anything. It told me a story about myself.
I believe that there is a book out there that tells you exactly what you need to hear. It’s not the same book for everyone, of course. For some people, it’s something like The Call of the Wild or To Kill a Mockingbird. For others, it’s Eat Pray Love, although I pity those people immensely. For me, it’s The Graveyard Book.
When I read it the first half dozen or so times, I simultaneously found new passages that I hadn’t noticed before and uncovered things about myself that I hadn’t known. I realized that, for twenty-four years, I had been obsessively concerned with being a grown up. Because I was doing what I perceived to be the necessary steps to achieve true adulthood and therefore happiness and wealth, every setback made me feel like a total failure. However, after the main character of The Graveyard Book, Bod, goes through the trials of his life, which are many, varied, and increasingly interesting, he doesn’t end up with any of the things I equated with adulthood. He doesn’t have money or a job or a spouse, yet here was a fictional boy who I recognized was more of a man than I was. What I thought were basic truths were not even guidelines. Being an adult, being a man, was so much more and so much less than I had believed. With a heap of words, all of those preconceptions, the potential future I had built in my head, were gone in an instant, like magic. I was free.
I mentioned in my previous article that I love to be scared, and, from my description of the first few opening lines of this book and the fact that it contains werewolves, witches, vampires, night-gaunts, etc., you might assume that this is a horror. It is, I suppose, and a perfect Halloween read, but it is also much more than that. It is the story of Nobody Owens, a living boy who grows up in a graveyard. That’s really the heart of it, growing up. It’s about adventure and believing in things and taking punishment that you’re due and doing things because they’re hard and learning and sharing and fighting and caring for others and doing what’s right for the right reasons and being more than you thought you could be and showing more bravery than you ever thought you had in you. The Graveyard Book is about my life. And yours. It told me what I needed to hear so that I could finally be an adult, so I could understand that growing up doesn’t mean getting more and more cynical until you can’t trust or take joy in anything. Rather, growing up means facing your life, its pain, its pleasure, and refusing to feel persecuted, accepting both triumph and disaster as the building blocks of a full life, which you have to walk into with your eyes and your heart wide open.