Gene Wolfe is known for writing complex novels with odd, unreliable narrators. His series, The Book of the Short Sun, is set on three planets: Blue, an ocean world; Green, a jungle world; and the Whorl, the generation ship that brought humans to Blue and Green. In the story, Green is inhabited by the inhumi, vampire-like aliens who feed on the humans. So, of course, our hero, who is narrating the story, ends up on Green.
And the language changes. He talks about the events on Green in the third person, not the first. The chronology is all weird, too. He throws out these little fragments of memory, like he’s trying to avoid talking about what happened to him. There’s a sense that the events on Green were just so horrible that he still isn’t prepared to talk about it or think about it. So he’s sneaking up on those memories in his mind, approaching them obliquely so that he can talk about them without having to fully engage the horror of what he had seen and done.
I’ve been debating if I’m being overly melodramatic with my titling here. But, from my current perspective, as I look back over the past few years, they have been bleak.
I’ve been blogging since April 2005. I look back over my blog archive, and I see a pattern. Up through 2008, I posted frequently. Twenty to thirty posts a month was common. Starting in 2009, it drops to just a couple of posts in a month. Sometimes it’s only one post.
Sometimes it’s none at all.
For years, when we’d drive past the Residence Inn, I couldn’t even look at it.
Things started to slide in January 2009, which is when Crystal’s mother died. Yes, both of us lost our mothers when they were both fairly young. On the way back from the funeral, we were robbed. Someone smashed a window in the rental car and took a bunch of our stuff.
Reviewing my blog from the time, I can see that I was getting tired. Having a little one in the house can definitely contribute to that, and maybe that’s all it was.
I was violently ill in the spring of 2010. I took some time off work and spent all of it being sick.
I would hug myself as I’d sit. In body language terms, this is called “self-comfort”. I curled up in myself.
It was November 29, 2009, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Crystal and I were hacking together leftovers into Sunday evening supper. The kids were eating in the breakfast room. Gabrielle was up in her room, watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer with a friend. It was a normal evening.
Gabrielle and Raquel came downstairs to say that the light in Gabrielle’s room had dimmed oddly. Huh. Okay. So we went upstairs and looked. Nothing. I think I said something about telling me if anything else happened when I heard a popping sound from the laundry room. I rushed around the corner in time to see blue sparks shooting from the ceiling.
Due to the layout of our house, I was about as far as oen can be from the electrical breakers. But somehow I covered the distance in record speed, stopping only to grab the flashlight that I always carry in my bag. When I threw open the basement door, smoke billowed out. But down I went.
Crystal tells me that she saw me disappear into the smoke and was afraid she’d never see me again.
We live in a neighborhood that can be rough, so we established a code word. We tell the kids that if an adult says “Danger”, it’s time to stop arguing and asking questions and just obey. Everything will be explained later, but do whatever you’re told, even if it seems ridiculous.
Danger was invoked. Those that were older grabbed those who were younger and fled the house.
Downstairs, I moved quickly to the breakers and threw them all. The house was plunged into darkness. I emerged from the basement and called 911.
The house was swarming with firefighters, who quickly established several things. First, the situation would have been much worse if I hadn’t thrown the breakers. Second, the wiring in the house was in a disastrous state. The battalion chief was peppering me with questions which I couldn’t answer, which eventually convinced him that I wasn’t responsible for the state of the wiring. Which is good, because he was furious.
The house wasn’t up to electrical code. Therefore, he declared it to be unsafe and had the power to the house killed until repairs could be made.
Then everyone left.
It was 8:30 pm. An hour before, it was a normal Sunday. Now, I stood alone in the dark in my breakfast room. The remnants of dinner were scattered over the table, left when people had fled.
The Christmas village in the front room was dark.
And I broke down and cried.
We ended up at a hotel.
Other fire victims were there. We heard horror stories. The man who opened the door to his baby’s room and saw the wall behind her engulfed in flames. The woman who had been fighting with her insurance company about her fire and had been at the hotel for a year.
Crystal and I ended up at the house a lot, fighting to get the adjusters to listen to us. For a while, it looked like they were going to deny our claim entirely.
We’d watch television every night until it wore us out, because otherwise we couldn’t sleep.
Moving through the house was like walking through a tomb. You don’t realize how much of the feel of a place relies on things like warmth and light. I felt like I was passing through the ruins of my home. I was without a home.
Hope learned to crawl at the hotel.
I remember when we drove away from the neighborhood to go to the hotel. I felt like I was leaving everything. I felt the loss of safety, of security, of home. I was homeless.
We celebrated Christmas at the hotel.
Crystal and I would try to escape by going down to the pool until late so that we could talk without waking up the kids in the other room. It smelled like chlorine and fatigue and fear.
I was so afraid.
In September of 2011, I took a weekend and went on a spiritual retreat. I started by driving to the Residence Inn and sitting in the parking lot. It was a step.
In July of 2012, I returned to that parking lot, because I wasn’t done facing it.
We lived out of a hotel for a month.
We were homeless for a month.
There is a hole in my mind, and it is one month long.
For years, my soul was trapped in a dark, dead, cold house; in the rubble of my life; in the darkness and cold that swept into my life and covered everything.
I’ve sought comfort in alcohol. I’m not too proud to say it. It dulled the pain enough so I could function. I’m not talking about being drunk or anything. But my consumption went up sharply. I had discovered absinthe, which is still really tasty. But, even more, I liked that it made my pain ease. I once told Gabrielle, with tears in my eyes, that I only felt happy in those times when I was drinking it.
I’ve sought comfort in games. I’m not too proud to say it. Games can be very distracting, and I tried to throw myself into play and design to hide from my pain. But I had no energy or desire. I wanted to want, but I was so tired that even doing things that brought me joy was too much effort. I’d buy games mostly because I was trying to find that happiness that was eluding me.
There was more.
In January 2011, I was been promoted to Director of IT, and as I began to make some preliminary assessments, it became clear that our situation wasn’t just bad; it was disastrous. Not to mention the relocation that I was trying to coordinate, which wasn’t going well at all. Every day at work was another day of uncovering disaster. It was overwhelming.
In February 2011, we left our church to find another one. Over the course of the year, this resulted in significant drama that left us bloodied and drained.
I was afraid.
I was exhausted.
I was alone.
I look back at these fragments and I can begin to see what was happening. But, at the time, I was just trying to keep my head above water.
And I was failing.
A couple weeks before the fire, I bought the third edition of Space Hulk, which is everything I wanted it to be. My brother and I played a pile of it, even before the fire. So, a few days after the fire, I’m talking to Jonathan. He’s expressing his concern, and it’s all good. Then he leans over in his “I’m being silly and serious all at once” way and asks, “Did Space Hulk make it out?”
That still makes me laugh.
By the way, yes, it did.
One Friday while we were at the hotel, several folks came over and we sat in the dining area downstairs and played games like Space Hulk and Dominion until entirely too late.
A collection was taken up at our church to help pay for the house repairs.
Ralph Mazza took all of us out to see a movie and to hang at his house while we did laundry, so we could get out of the hotel for a bit. He bought all of us popcorn. All of us.
When my stuff was stolen out of our car, several of my games were in my bag, including my copy of Breaking the Ice. Crystal got in touch with Emily Care Boss, the designer of the game and a friend of mine, who happily provided a free replacement copy for me.
Inside she wrote:
Wishing you always
Double Happiness + the
Joy that you bring to
all in your life
It has been a long dark pilgrimage.
But hope was not yet lost.
But hope was not yet lost.
But hope was not yet lost.