30 Jun

Dreaming Is Free: Its Aftermath Is Not

The book cover for Dreams and Shadows

Dreams and Shadows

Book Review: Dreams and Shadows: A Novel by C. Robert Cargill

I loved reading this book; I guess we can start with that. Like most books I’ve been reading lately, I spotted this on the “new” shelf at the library. The cover looked really cool and the description sounded good, so I went for it. I know we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, but I think it’s okay to do so sometimes, especially when the cover is awesome and the text is awesome too.

I would describe this book as probably urban fantasy or, perhaps, a modern fairy tale. And yes, it’s a fairy tale with all the nasty, brutish implications of one told by the Brothers Grim, not the Disney adaptation. I know I am not the first person to say this, but it definitely reminded me of a Neil Gaiman novel—it’s kind of American Gods-esque. Like all great fantasy, it deals not just with the fantastical, but also with how humankind’s fantasies reflect its true nature. I’ll get into that in a minute.

Before we go any further: a summary. The first part of Dreams and Shadows alternates between two characters. There is Ewan who is kidnapped by fairies as a baby and replaced by a changeling who wastes no time compelling Ewan’s parents to kill themselves. There is also Colby, the son of an alcoholic, negligent mother who encounters a genie. Part of the excitement of reading this book was that I immediately knew that the characters were going to cross paths (because, duh, that is how stories work), but I couldn’t wait to find out how. Ewan and Colby are both eight years old during the first part of the story (with the exception of the part of the exposition that involves the changeling) so even though they are operating in realms that would seem illogical to adults, they inhabit this madness readily.

Ewan is being raised by the fairy folk of the Limestone Kingdom (near Austin, Texas—and when was the last time you read a fantasy set in Texas?) and is being slowly transformed into a fairy. Unfortunately for him, he is not being turned into a fairy just for fun, but he is the tithe child. Fairies, it is explained, have an ongoing pact with the devil that requires them to sacrifice one of their own every seven years in order to maintain their longevity. Rather than sacrifice their proper kin, they often steal children, turn them into fairies, and sacrifice them as soon as they’ve turned.

Colby meets the cursed genie (djinn, to be more accurate), Yashar. Yashar has an interesting backstory that involves a jealous vizier, the genocide of the djinn, and years of lonliness. He selects Colby for wish-making because djinn are unable to survive unless someone remembers them. Although Yashar is reluctant to grant Colby’s wish (cursed djinn, remember?), he does eventually grant it. Colby, somewhat unfortunately, wishes to “see everything.” By everything, he means all the supernatural things that no one else sees. This wish is eventually what makes him cross paths with Ewan.

I won’t go into the rest because I don’t want to ruin it, but suffice to say, Colby and Ewan do cross paths. Colby also wishes to become a wizard in what I found to be a hilarious display of child-logic. One thing I will also say about the progression of the narrative is that I appreciated Cargill’s inclusion of faux-scholarly texts on the matter of the fey. There is a series of excerpts from the work of Dr. Thaddeus Ray, Ph.D. Some of them explain different types of fairies (djinn, for one), or fairy custom (like the tithe). The best explained where fairies came from. Fairies are essentially the result of whatever ambient emotion there is to be found in an area. If a city radiates misery and hatred, fairy folk are created who feed off these emotions. A region full of goodwill is likely to engender fairies who feed on those emotions instead. In this way, the fey are a true reflection of humanity. Miserable people beget miserable creatures.

One of the themes that I found in Dreams and Shadows is that monsters aren’t the real monsters; people are. When Colby first meets Yashar, the djinn, he asks if monsters are real. His response was to tell Colby:

“Monsters are real. Very real. But they’re not just creatures. Monsters are everywhere. They’re people, they’re nightmares … They are the things that we harbor within ourselves. If you remember one thing, even above remembering me, remember that there is not a monster dreamt of that hasn’t walked once within the soul of a man.”

So, even though most of the villains in this story are fairies, we must remember that the fairies are, effectively, created by humans. It’s easier to understand and contextualize our own humanity when we see it in another group of beings.

Another piece of the ‘monsters aren’t the monsters’ trope is Yashar’s behavior. After Colby and Ewan meet, the local fairy council decides that Colby and Yashar have to go because they pose a threat to the tithe child, Ewan. Yashar’s response to the fact that Ewan is going to be brutally murdered for the sake of the Limestone Kingdom: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”  Yashar displays a much higher degree of humanity than almost anyone else in the story, despite being a djinn.

But don’t worry, this story isn’t preachy, I just like analyzing literature. Dreams and Shadows is also hilarious. One of my favorite exchanges is between young Colby and Ewan. Colby finds out that Ewan has never seen Aladdin because he’s been busy being raised by fairies. When Ewan thinks Colby is an idiot for not knowing something basic about fairies, Colby shoots back, “At least I’ve seen Aladdin!” Cargill does a great job of representing what children find to be critically important and incorporating it into the story. Another part that I laughed out loud over was Colby wishing to be a wizard. Yashar insists that he can’t “just make [Colby] a wizard.” Colby just keeps wishing, insisting that Yashar promised he would grant any wish as long as they left the Limestone Kingdom and Ewan behind. Obviously, describing jokes out of context is not that funny, but trust me, there are some pretty funny bits in this story.

There is a lot more to this story than I’ve written about here because I don’t want to spoil it. I really loved this book and it was one of the best fantasies I’ve read in a while. If you’re looking for a modern, hilarious, but poignant story, definitely check out Dreams and Shadows.

30 Jun

Panic: A Retrospective Essay

I remember the first time I had a panic attack.

Of course, at the time, I wouldn’t have called it that.

I was four years old—maybe even three, who knows—and my parents, still married, drove me to my grandparents’ house in San Clemente to stay the night. I don’t think I had ever slept somewhere without my parents before then. Or if I had, I lacked the capacity to note the difference.

We came in through the garage, passing my grandfather’s workbench, and entered the house. We placed my duffel bag and stuffed animals in the spare bedroom. My parents made their farewells, probably looking forward to some time to do whatever it is parents do without children.

I walked into the living room, finding my grandparents sitting on the sofa. My grandfather looked at me and with a pinching hand motion said, “Bug, bug, bug.” It was something he always said to me (and my sister, later on) as kids, but I have no idea why. Just then, I started crying, screaming perhaps. It’s difficult to retroactively judge one’s level of volume.

I don’t think it was my grandfather’s bugs that provoked me, but to all observers that seemed to be the case. I knew that wasn’t it. It wasn’t that my parents were gone. It wasn’t being in San Clemente. I just panicked.

“Do you miss your mom and dad?” my grandma asked. I sobbed out a “no.” An interrogation followed. Was I hungry? Bored? Did grandpa bother me? No, no, no. None of those things. I couldn’t explain it, I was just upset.

I wish I could remember what eventually calmed me down. I suppose it was just time and possibly a popsicle. I think my parents came back to get me. It was not to be my first sleepover.

I was 26 when I was actually diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. Why it took that long, I have no idea. I had seen at least two therapists as an adult before I met the one who gave me a proper diagnosis. After my parents’ divorce, there was talk of therapy, but I insisted that I didn’t need it. Why anyone would listen to the opinion of a distraught seven year old, I can’t explain.

Anyone can have panic attacks, not just people with disorders. The human brain is equal opportunity that way. A true panic attack—not just stress or general anxiety—includes a series of biochemical reactions. The nervous system, trying to be helpful, I’m sure, leaps into action when someone feels stressed. In a normal, non-panicked brain, the parasympathetic system would then step in, take the nervous system’s keys and call a cab, but sometimes, the parasympathetic system is not a very responsible friend. In the case of a panic attack, no one is around to tell the nervous system, “Go home, you’re drunk,” and the brain is unable to calm down.

I think everyone experiences panic a little bit differently. For me, my brain feels loud. Not that my thoughts are loud, but whatever is happening in my head is drowning out other noise, other stimuli. My music will be on, but I’ll only halfway hear it. My boyfriend hugs me but I only halfway feel it. I get hot, like I’m on fire from the inside out and my skin will be the last thing to ignite. I feel at once like I want to sleep, or cry, or just start running and never turn back around.

These feelings are highly problematic for me. When I’m not absolutely losing my shit for no reason at all, I consider myself an intellectual person. I make a living based on my ability to use my head, to think critically. Since watching Star Trek: The Original Series, I like to pretend I’m a Vulcan (or maybe just half-Vulcan. Spock is only half and he does alright). When a panic attack hits, I lose all control. I feel like a goddamned idiot for freaking out. I usually have no idea what precipitated it, which makes it even harder to understand.

This happened to me again today. I woke up feeling okay, I guess. But within an hour, I felt myself feeling moody. I attributed it to general stress. I moved in with my boyfriend just a week ago and the intervening seven days had been quite full. My things weren’t totally organized, and I assumed that was stressing me out. Admittedly, this is a dumb reason to be stressed, but it’s better than no reason at all.

We started cleaning up. I was vacuuming and my boyfriend was moving things out of the way to make it easier for me. For some reason, this irritated me. I felt myself getting frustrated and then I chided myself for it. What a dumb reason to be upset. He was helping. We finished vacuuming. I headed to the closet where the last of the boxes were hiding. I started rearranging things, pulling out boxes and piling up blankets, but I was not okay. I was freaking out. I could feel it.

I sat down. I was burning up. I knew I was having a panic attack, but I wasn’t sure why. “I’m so stressed out right now,” I told my boyfriend. “How can I help?” was his response. I love him for it and I hate myself for being mad and telling him there was nothing he could do and that I just had to deal with it. I angrily went back to my piles.

I pulled some things out of a a box. I stopped. Why was I upset? I sat down, too hot. I leaned my head against some of my fingers and Kirk (the aforementioned boyfriend) kissed me, once again asking what he could do. “I feel like fire,” was all I could say. “Take one of your pills,” was his suggestion.

I have anxiety medication, but I hate it. One time I took a pill and I slept for five hours and felt like shit after. I reminded him of this. “Take a quarter,” he said. “I don’t have time to sleep all day!” I angrily returned to my box and my piles.

I can’t deal. I feel like crying, or maybe screaming. Anything. I go to the bedroom, strip and throw myself onto the bed. I hold a large pillow against my face, trying to smoother the rest of the world. In this state, I feel like I can’t deal with existence. I said this out loud once and people thought I meant to kill myself.

I don’t explain it that way anymore.

Kirk comes in and pretends to be one of the kitties, meowing and pushing his head against me. Normally, I think, this might make me laugh. Instead, I swat at him with the hand that isn’t securing the pillow against my face.

I cry a little.

I breathe and try to stop berating myself.

 

 

 

I start to cool down.

Eventually, I reposition myself so my head is only half under the pillow. I take deeper breaths.

I start to tune back in to the rest of the world. I hear the fan whirring quietly as it steadily sends cool air in my direction. I feel it collide with my skin. My bra feels uncomfortable because it’s so hot and because I’m lying on my side. I realize that I left music playing in the other room as my brain remembers how to decode sounds. Suddenly, the pillow feels heavy against my face. I don’t need it anymore.

My cat jumps onto the bed as I am coming back into myself. She meows and meows. She’s always meowing her little meows. She rubs against me and licks me. Cat things. I pet this entity of fluff a few minutes, taking deeper breaths and feeling generally like a human again.

I walked back into the other room, finding Kirk at his computer.

“I’m sorry.” I kissed him.

“You don’t need to apologize.” Whether or not I need to, I still feel like I should. Loosing control like this makes me feel embarrassed. When I come back around, I feel like an alcoholic sobering up for the first time, realizing what’s happened. Making amends is a critical step.

I wish I could say I know it won’t happen again so I could wrap things up with a “We’ll look back at this and laugh!” and be done with it. But I never know when I am going to have a panic attack. Even when I am managing my life reasonably well, these things just happen.

Earlier today, when I was coming to terms with being a member of humanity again, I thought about this. About how to explain it and about my history of freaking out. I’ve never really written about it before. I decided I should. I’m sure other people have written about this issue, and probably even more people have experienced it but lack the capacity or willingness to write. So here is mine.