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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 9: The Kindly Ones” by Neil Gaiman

So I finished this book a couple days ago, and have been digesting it and trying to decide how I will approach writing about it without spoiling the ending (Note – do NOT read the introduction to this book unless you want to know how it ends). And also, how do I write about something that contains so many layers of complexity? After stepping away, then going back and reviewing my notes, I decided I will focus on the theme of responsibility, and how that is tied to an individual’s nature.

The first scene I want to examine is when Delirium visits Dream and tries to convince him to join her on a search for her lost dog. The Dream Lord tries to explain to her why he cannot leave the dream realm at the present time.

Delirium: So can you come with me? And look?

Dream: Sister, I have responsibilities. I cannot leave the Dreaming at this time.

Delirium: You use that word so much. Responsibilities. Don’t you ever think about what it means? I mean, what does it mean to you? In your head?

Dream: Well, I use it to refer to that area of existence over which I exert a certain amount of control and influence. In my case, the realm and action of dreaming.

Delirium: Hump. It’s more than that. The things we do make echoes. S’pose, f’rinstance, you stop on a street corner and admire a brilliant fork of lightning — ZAP! Well for ages after people and things will stop on that very same corner, and stare up at the sky. They wouldn’t even know what they were looking for. Some of them might see a ghost bolt of lightning in the street. Some of them might even be killed by it. Our existence deforms the universe. THAT’S responsibility.

This is profound. Not only do our individual actions affect the universe, no matter how small (think the butterfly effect), but our consciousness molds reality and existence on a cosmic level. Nothing we do, nothing we say, and nothing we think is trivial. Everything we do has consequence. Every individual is responsible for the direction that reality takes. Our thoughts and actions ripple across the universe, forming and “deforming” the very fabric of being. The fact that I am writing this, and the fact that you are reading these words, will have an impact on the unfolding of future events. We must, as sentient beings, never take anything for granted.

In the realm of Faerie, the Lady Nuala asks the trickster Puck why he is the way he is.

Nuala: Why do you take such joy in confusion, Robin Goodfellow?

Puck: Because I am true to my nature, Lady Nuala.

This echoes the words of Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.” Puck knows he is an incarnation of the trickster archetype, and it is his responsibility to accept his true nature. We are all responsible for acknowledging our nature and adhering to it. It is when we deviate from who we are, when we pretend to be something we are not, that we create disharmony in the universe. Honest self-evaluation is requisite for living a genuine life. Do not deny your essence—embrace it, as Puck does.

And this leads us to the final passage I want to share, in which Dream accepts his true responsibilities, understanding that he must make sacrifices in order to fulfill his responsibilities and embody his true nature.

Dream: Rules and responsibilities: these are the ties that bind us. We do what we do, because of who we are. If we did otherwise, we would not be ourselves. I will do what I have to do. And I will do what I must.

We are bound by our natures, by our responsibilities, and by our thoughts and actions. We are intrinsically tied to existence, and all we can do is do what we have to do. So once again, I will repeat the words of Shakespeare:

To thine own self be true.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 8: World’s End” by Neil Gaiman

In his introduction to this book, Stephen King praises the complexity of Gaiman’s work and ranks him among some noteworthy writers.

This is challenging stuff. I’m not saying it’s so challenging that my old be-bop buddies wouldn’t have dug it, reading our comics up in a sweltering storage space above Chrissie Essigian’s garage on a rainy summer afternoon, but it’s challenging – sophisticated storytelling on a level practiced by Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, or (and perhaps this is closer to the mark) John Fowles.

I concur. This is very deep reading, with layers and layers of symbolism woven in, but it is also wonderful storytelling, which makes it enjoyable without having to understand the levels of complexity.

This book is structured like Chaucer’s The Canturbury Tales, where an unusual cast of characters find themselves riding out a reality storm at the World’s End inn. They pass the time telling stories, which often have nested stories within the stories.

In one of the tales, the storyteller shares an account of a meeting he had in an alternate reality. The old man who he met and talked with shared some interesting ideas regarding the possibility of places having consciousness.

“Perhaps a city is a living thing. Each city has its own personality, after all. Los Angeles is not Vienna. London is not Moscow. Chicago is not Paris. Each city is a collection of lives and buildings and it has its own personality.”

“So?”

“So, if a city has a personality, maybe it also has a soul. Maybe it dreams. That is where I believe we have come. We are in the dreams of the city. That’s why certain places hover on the brink of recognition; why we almost know where we are.”

This is a concept I have often pondered, whether consciousness exists in all matter, not just higher forms of animated species. I look at trees and wonder if they have consciousness. I have thought about whether stones or mountains or water have a form of consciousness that we are not able to perceive. If the answer to any of these possibilities is “maybe,” then maybe cities also have consciousness.

In another of the tales, a story is shared about a person’s apprenticeship in a necropolis. The speaker recounts a lesson regarding the purpose of the ceremonies for the deceased.

She was a wise woman. She told us that what we do is not for the dead. Death is not about the disposal of the client.

“What do the dead care about what happens to them? Eh? They’re dead. All the trappings of death are for the living. It is the final reconciliation. The last farewell.”

As I get older and seem to be attending more funerals and memorials, I recognize the truth in this. I remember my mom’s service. I was still fairly young and it was extremely painful. But it was important. I had to see her one last time, touch her once more, before I could start the long healing process. Ceremony is important. It reminds us of what it is to be human.

The last passage I want to share is the innkeeper’s explanation of what a reality storm is.

“Well, sometimes big things happen, and they echo. These echoes crash across the worlds. They are ripples in the fabrics of things. Often they manifest as storms. Reality is a very fragile thing, after all.”

We all want to believe in the stability of the reality we inhabit. But the fragility of the construct which we call reality is something we should consider. How certain are we that what we perceive as reality is really that? Just because our senses make us think it is that way? Our senses can deceive us. In fact, some of these very questions are being explored in the realm of physics right now.

I will close by saying that I found the end of this book to be somewhat, unsettling. It stirred a lot of internal questions for me, which I cannot divulge without spoiling the ending (something I hate to do). I encourage you to read this book, to grapple with the ideas, and contemplate. It would be a worthwhile exercise.

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Evolution: #7

I can see now that the world has evolved, too. So much it can’t even see the threat inside it. Everyone pretending that all this is normal. An entire planet gone mad.

When I read this quote in Evolution this morning, it captured how I have been feeling about the world lately. Much has changed and evolved in the last 20 to 30 years, and very rapidly, both for good and bad. But many of us are so caught up in the frenzy that we are unable to take a step back and get some perspective on the radical changes that our world is experiencing. I speak from experience. I was caught up in the frenzy of change, but have lately been making a conscious effort to slow down, practice some mindfulness, and filter out some of the chaotic noise that is accompanying all that is occurring. Doing so has allowed me to begin to see my role in the world a little more clearly, and help me navigate these turbulent waters.

Take a few moments to slow down and reflect today. It is important to do so. Cheers.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 7: Brief Lives” by Neil Gaiman

In this installment in the Sandman saga, Neil Gaiman explores the brevity and impermanence of existence, both human and divine. We all accept the ephemeral nature of human existence, but do not want to believe that gods and the universe are also transitory. But if we accept that we are a reflection of the divine, and our lives are temporary, then it stands to reason that divine existence is also temporary, with a beginning and an end, as part of a cycle that is beyond our ability to understand.

Early in the book, Death comes to claim a man who lived an unusually long life. He asks Death whether he had a long life, and Death responds:

“You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less. You got a lifetime.”

Death’s answer is sobering. We are prone to compare our lifespan with others, but time is really just an illusion. We all have exactly the same amount of time on this plane—one lifetime. Even if you believe in the doctrine of reincarnation, the fact remains that for this incarnation, you only have a lifetime.

Later in the book, Dream has an encounter with Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex. Ishtar is working as an exotic dancer, and after meeting with Dream and Delirium, she decides to perform her sacred dance at the club. But before she begins, she shares with the club manager the secret of the birth and death of gods, knowing that he will not survive the dance to pass the secret on to others.

“I know how gods begin, Roger. We start as dreams. Then we walk out of dreams into the land. We are worshipped and loved, and take power to ourselves. And then one day there’s no one left to worship us. And in the end, each little god and goddess takes its last journey back into dreams… and what comes after, not even we know.”

What Gaiman is asserting here is that gods manifest from the collective unconscious, that the realm which the human psyche can only vaguely glimpse through myth and symbol is the birthplace of all things divine. And as long as these gods are nourished by our spiritual and psychic energy, they thrive; but once humans cease to feed a god or goddess the requisite energy, they wither and pass, returning again to the formless source.

Throughout the book, Dream and Delirium are on a quest to find their brother, Destruction. After they find him, there is a great scene where Destruction takes his brother and sister out under the stars, and uses the stars as a metaphor for the ephemeral existence of all things, divine and temporal.

“I like the stars. It’s the illusion of permanence, I think. I mean, they’re always flaring up and caving in and going out. But from here, I can pretend… I can pretend that things last. I can pretend that lives last longer than moments. Gods come, and gods go. Mortals flicker and flash and fade. Worlds won’t last, and stars and galaxies are transient, fleeting things that twinkle like fireflies and vanish into cold and dust. But I can pretend.”

This speaks volumes about the human condition. We move along the paths of our brief lives, pretending that we are a part of some grand, eternal thing. But it is an illusion, just like time. All lives, all existence, everything that is, is in reality just a fleeting twinkle, a flash that will ultimately fade and be forgotten. Knowing this does not make me feel disillusioned with life, but grateful for every moment that I am blessed with. Knowing that my life is but a flicker makes me want to cherish and make the most out of it. For me, this concept is not crippling, but empowering. I hope it has the same effect on you.

Cheers and blessings.

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Thoughts on “American Gods: My Ainsel” by Neil Gaiman: Issue 03

There is a great section in this installment where Wednesday (who is actually the god Odin) tells Shadow about the mystical secrets and knowledge that he possesses.

“Nine nights I hung on a bare tree, my side pierced with a spear’s point. I swayed and blew in the cold winds and the hot winds, a sacrifice of myself, to myself, and the worlds opened to me. These are the charms I learned.

“I know a charm that can heal with a touch. I know a charm that can take warriors through the tumult unscathed and unhurt. I know a charm to free myself from all bonds and locks. I can quench fire simply by looking at it. I can sing the storm to sleep for long enough to bring a ship to shore. I learned to dispel witches, to spin them around in the skies so that they will never find their way back to their own doors again. I know a charm that can turn aside the weapons of an enemy.”

Wednesday spoke as if he were reciting the words of a religious ritual.

“I can make people believe in my dreams. I know the names of all the gods. And I know the greatest charm of all, and that charm I can tell to no man. For a secret that no one knows but you is the most powerful charm of all.”

I generally operate on the principle that secrets tend to be unhealthy, that one is only as sick as one’s secrets. But I do not think that this is the type of secret that Gaiman is referring to. I feel that he is trying to convey that the most powerful truths are those that are hidden the deepest, which no individual can access except via the portal of myth and symbolism. Spiritual secrets are not secret because no one is willing to share the knowledge; they are secret because only certain individuals have to ability to grasp the meaning buried deep within the symbol or myth. The ability to understand the metaphysical secrets accessible to the human psyche only through symbolism is the wellspring of true wisdom and power. And that the most hidden of truths, the secret only known to the one or the few, that is the most powerful of spiritual truths, and hence the most coveted.

Thanks for stopping by, and never stop seeking.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 6: Fables and Reflections” by Neil Gaiman

In his introduction to this volume, Gene Wolfe beautifully sums up why reading Gaiman is so important.

What is important and central is that, time after time, the stories themselves are true. I don’t mean simply that Neil Gaiman’s history is good history and that his myth is good myth – although they are. I mean that you will understand yourself and the world better for having read them, and that you will have been both ennobled and troubled by the experience; that this is not just art – all sorts of ugly and foolish things are art – but great art.

I completely agree. The stories and myths that Gaiman presents in this book convey truths that can only be expressed through symbols and metaphors. And because Gaiman is such a master of his craft, the stories come to life in a way that feels authentic and personal. While I probably connected with the tale of Haroun al Raschid the most, I also found his interpretations of the Orpheus myth and the Adam and Eve myth to be powerful and inspiring.

Not surprising, but the importance of dreams and the subconscious is a theme that runs through all the tales in this volume, so rather than look at the specific tales, I figured I would share some of the dream-related quotes that particularly stood out for me.

Value’s in what people think. Not in what’s real. Value’s in dreams, boy.

While this statement seems paradoxical, the more you think about it, the more truthful it appears. So often, people place value on tangible things and material possessions. But these things are ephemeral. Eventually, all our material stuff turns to dust, or we die and then our material things are useless to us. But our dreams are internal. They make up who we are on a spiritual level. This is what matters in the end, whether we lived our lives in accordance with our dreams. Additionally, it is from dreams that our creativity grows. Without dreams, there can be no imagination.

Ah. Many dreams come through the Gates of Ivory, Lycius, and they lie. A few dreams come through the Gates of Horn, and they speak to us truly.

Have you ever woken from a dream and had the feeling that some deep truth was conveyed to you through the dream? I have. Usually, I wake up and even if I have had a vivid dream, I know it is just my subconscious processing thoughts. But on those rare occasions, the dreams do seem to come through the “Gates of Horn.” It’s like, while in the dream state, your psyche connects with some divine intelligence. I cannot think of any other way to describe it.

Let’s go and find somewhere comfortable to wait until we wake. It’s so rare to realize that you’re dreaming when you are.

I’ve experienced this phenomenon, also, where I was dreaming and somehow knew I was dreaming. It is a very strange feeling. It is almost like the threshold between the dreaming state and the waking state dissolves, and you are essentially embodying both states of consciousness simultaneously. I recall feeling disoriented after waking from this type of dream.

Time at the edge of dreaming is softer than elsewhere, and here in the soft places it loops and whorls on itself. In the soft places where the border between dreams and reality is eroded, or has not yet formed… Time. It’s like throwing a stone into a pool. It casts ripples. Hoom. That’s where we are. Here. In the soft places, where the geographies of dream intrude upon the real.

I am fascinated by the space between the conscious and the subconscious, between ordinary and non-ordinary realities, the threshold between what we assume is real and what we assume is illusion. How can we really know what is real? Our reality is a construct. And time? I think somewhere, deep inside, we all feel that time is an illusion, that there is a deeper reality which exists beyond time and space. Sometimes I think that during states of deep meditation, during profound mystical experiences, or in this case, during certain dream states, we enter the “soft spaces” where the world we perceive dissolves and the ripples of hidden realities flutter across our consciousness.

I am only halfway through this series of books (there are 12 volumes of Sandman, not including the Overture, which I read in serialized form), and already I feel like my life has changed as a result of reading these works. There are some books that you cannot read without having them affect you on a deep level, and I think the Sandman series falls into this category. I highly recommend that you read these books, and be prepared to have your beliefs challenged.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 5: A Game of You” by Neil Gaiman

This installment in the Sandman saga explores how consciousness creates reality, a topic that I personally find intriguing.

Past and future both cast their ripples into the dreaming, Matthew.

This one short line spoke volumes to me. The dreaming is symbolic of the collective consciousness, which manifests individually in the subconscious mind, which surfaces during the dream state. The collective consciousness is affected by events past and future, as well as by the potential of infinite possibility. The dreamscape is where human consciousness explores the myriad dimensions of reality and possibility. There is another symbol that Gaiman uses throughout this text—the skerry. Skerries are reefs or rocky islands, essentially solid matter jutting up out of the water. Gaiman uses skerries to symbolize individual realities in a vast ocean of consciousness. Each individual reality casts ripples throughout the entire sea of consciousness. All out realities, no matter how insignificant they may seem to us, affect all other realities: past, present, and future. Think butterfly effect.

They walked past me, the living and the dead, and one by one they vanished into the darkness of his cloak. Then there were others walking past. Different wonderful characters — soldiers and courtiers, youngest sons and cats-in-boots: these weren’t the inhabitants of my land. These were someone else’s people — some earlier princess’s escape from reality…

As I read this, I thought about how what we consider to be reality is actually nothing more than shared fantasies and imagination. We project onto the canvas of reality our hopes and dreams and fears, and these become the fabric of our collective existence. I often wonder what would happen if we changes our beliefs and our fantasies. Could we recreate reality into something better? The more I consider it, the less flakey it sounds.

Okay. Here goes. Barbie’s idea. It’s like, that people… Well, that everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands maybe. Isn’t that a weird thought?

Our realities are as vast and myriad as our imaginations. To dream and to create worlds in our minds is human. It is this capacity that allows us to visualize a better world, to strive for new things, to explore and create. The only thing that holds us back is fear. If we could lose our fear, we’d be free to explore the hundreds and thousands of unimaginable worlds within each of us.

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