Looking Back with Button Eyes

Coraline horrified me as a child. So much, that I purposed never read Neil Gaiman again. Years later, I read Neverwhere and he immediately became one of my favorite authors.

I decided to revisit Coraline this year. I spent my read trying to dissect what it was that upset me as a child. I mean, it’s intentionally creepy. The heroine, Coraline, is a self-proclaimed explorer who finds a hidden door in her old house. It leads to an alternate version of her life, with an “other mother” who has buttons for eyes. The other mother invites Coraline to live in this new world forever. All she must do is allow her other mother to replace her eyes with buttons.

But I remember it being more than the danger and suspense of the plot that unsettled me. The feeling went deeper, into a dark place I feared to explore as a child.

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picture by pointblizzy

She seemed lonely to me, forgotten and ignored. She had no friends her age to play with and the adults dismiss her frequently throughout the story, even when she’s in danger. Her interactions with her father reinforced the story’s atmosphere of abandonment. He always seemed to have his back to Coraline when she spoke to him.

Enter the other mother who is eager to meet all Coraline’s needs, including Coraline’s desire for affection. But the intensity of the interest is unsettling, stalker-like. A silent watching and waiting, that quickly turns dangerous.

“It was true: the other mother loved her. But she loved Coraline as a miser loves money, or a dragon loves its gold. In the other mother’s button eyes, Coraline knew that she was a possession, nothing more. A tolerated pet, whose behavior was no longer amusing.”
~ Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Back then, Coraline read like the story of a girl offered the choice of living as outcast or prey. That is what made the book true horror to me. Ghosts fade in the daylight and demons can be exorcized, but if everyone abandons you, then loneliness is always.

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illustration by Chris Riddell

I often describe my childhood as silent. I combated my loneliness by retreating behind the door of my imagination, where I lived my hours in daydreams of closeness and acceptance. I had a whole other family in my mind, whose button-eyed gaze never looked through me. I wasn’t superfluous to them; I was loved.

Coraline disturbed me because I would have traded my eyes for buttons. In some ways, I already had.

During my reread, I paid close attention to how her real parents treated her and saw that they weren’t as neglectful as I’d remembered. There is, however, enough repetition in the text of her father turned away and of her desire for physical touch, that I don’t blame my younger self for picking up on it. It’s difficult to filter out the part of a story that speaks directly into your life. What encourages me most now is how, despite his neglect, she turns to his wisdom to cope with the oncoming darkness.

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illustration by Chris Riddell

Coraline’s story is actually about how bravery comes from fear. Fear is essential to bravery, for without fear, bravery has no purpose. This is a lesson Coraline learned from her father. He helped her choose to face her fears by walking back into the claws of the dark.

“‘Because,’ she said, ‘when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.'”
~ Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Coraline’s parents may have denied her the closeness she needed, but she was still able to learn from them, lessons essential to her survival and maturity. Dysfunctional, even broken, families have something to give.

My childhood will remain silent. But now, in the family I’ve chosen to be part of, I can fight to fill the rooms with love. I know the mistakes of yesterday because I lived them and braved their shadows alone. And as Coraline reminded herself that she was brave many times before she believed it, I will preach the pain of my past to myself again and again until it makes me stronger.

I will be brave. No, I am brave.

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Book Review: “Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman

The more I read them, the more I love old myths and legends. They’re more than stories, more than magic and gods and the fantastic, they’re part of the history of a people group. They give insight into what mattered to a culture, what a people believed about themselves and life.

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My husband is half Norwegian. His father’s parents emigrated to the United States after their first child was born. They are all very proud of their heritage, which shows itself in recipes, jokes, and heirlooms and even a regularly repeated rumor of lineage to Odin. *wrinkles nose dubiously* So when one of my favorite authors announced that he was releasing a book of Norse Myths, I was extra excited to read it.

I often describe Neil Gaiman’s writing voice as beautiful to the point of dangerous. His tone is fluid, poetic, and enchanting. Once he begins to tell a story, I don’t want to stop listening, and if my 9 month old baby wasn’t trying to nibble the book every time it appeared, I would easily have finished this book in two days. In the end, it took me two weeks and the dust jacket, which frequently sacrificed itself as bate to her grabby, curious hands, barely escaped with its life.

The myths inside are not written as a bare timeline of incidents the way I remember Hamilton’s Mythology, (which, while informative, I will always refer to as “the cure for insomnia”). Norse Mythology read like a novel, each episode one step closer to the inevitable doomsday of the gods, Ragnarök. The cast of characters includes fiendish dwarves, clever giants, and many flawed, yet powerful gods. Gaiman tells each tale with his usual flourish and touch of humor. It was perfectly executed.

Basically this book is beautiful and everyone should read it.

Silas: Vampire and Guardian

Reading The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is an extremely emotional experience for me. Unlike many book lovers, I don’t make a point of rereading my favorite books every year or so. My “to read” list is so long that I just don’t seem to get around to it. But in the past two years I’ve read The Graveyard Book three times. I have purchased four copies of it and I know I’ll be buying at least two more (the audiobook and the two volume graphic novel). It’s easy for me to get lost in the poetic prose of one of my favorite authors, but the story and the characters reach for me in ways that make me want to hold the book to my chest like it was more teddy bear than paperback.graveyard-book

I love the characters. I love Bod, how strong and brave and foolish he is. How real he is. I love Mr. and Mrs. Owens and Miss Lupescu and Liza Hempstock. But most of all, I love Silas.

Silas, Bod’s guardian, is by far my favorite character. I love how he shelters Bod, protects him, and sees to his needs. I love how he is able to reach a point where he can see he’s sheltering him too much, and learns to let go so that Bod can grow into a man. I love how he can find the humility to apologize for the wrong he’s done. I love how real the love between Bod and Silas is, despite the lack of physical touch or open expression with words and phrases like “I love you.” In their final goodbye, they simply shake hands, but in that handshake so much is said, so much genuine love and affection. Silas’ love for Bod was so evident and unmistakable through Bod’s childhood that, to me, their one final handshake is as good as a thousand kisses and hours of cuddling. Neither of them show evidence of broken dissatisfaction in their parting, the kind that leads to permanent hurt and rifts, because they know they are completely loved and accepted by one another, even if that love always appeared in a less conventional way.

I’m jealous really. I’m jealous of what Bod was given by Silas. I’m jealous of the real love Bod was given in his childhood, not just by Silas, but the whole of the graveyard. All those wise loving departed souls that took a genuine interest in seeing Bod learn to live. They had lived their lives already, and instead of them taking the opportunity of a living boy residing in their midst to vicariously experience another lifetime, they chose only to assist him in learning to live his life on his own.

Cover of Vol. 1 of Graphic Novelization. Silas standing behind Bod.

Nobody has perfect parents, but I think it’s a damn shame when parents tell their children how to live the life God gave them. One of the jobs of a parent is to open the eyes of a child to the world, all the ways of living and being. It’s all well and good to decide in your child’s youth that this or that avenue would be good for them, but should they turn out to want something different for their life, if you respond by cutting down their dreams, force feeding them your views, and breaking their wings so they never learn to fly, or even fall, on their own, you’re not helping them to grow; you’re destroying them. You had your chance to live and choose. This is their life, their choices, all of them: good, bad, or indifferent.

Since my miscarriage, I frequently go back and forth on if I want to take another shot at having a child. I don’t know if I want children, mostly because I’m afraid I’ll be a rotten mother, but I think if I could be certain that I could be a mother like Silas, then that would be enough for me. For on the day my child picked up their bags to leave their childhood, I’d know they knew I loved them, even if it was in my own strange way. I’d know that I’d done everything to protect them from danger in their youth, until they were old enough to take care of themselves. I’d know that I wasn’t perfect, but that my willingness to apologize for my shortcomings had gained me my child’s respect, not censure. I’d know that they would miss me, and be grateful for my influence on their life. I’d know that they would never be afraid to come home, even if they’d made decisions that they knew I would disagree with. They’d know there was a still a place for them because they were loved, unconditionally.

I’m not under the illusion that Silas was somehow perfect. Perhaps the intensity of my current struggles has made me latch onto him a bit unreasonably, reading more into his and Bod’s interactions than was ever intended. Silas wasn’t perfect, but I can’t help but dream and wish that he could somehow have been my guardian too. I think this is what makes reading The Graveyard Book such an emotional experience for me, so that when I turn the last page my eyes are streaming tears and my heart is a twisted knot of hope, longing, and unrecoverable loss.

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illustration by Chris Riddell

#NotInMyName

After the horrendous attacks in Paris, many muslims took to twitter to show their support for those suffering from terrorism, invoking the hashtag #NotInMyName.

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I saw this on twitter and found it very moving. I am not a Muslim, but have read books on Islam. Several of them were written by Ravi Zacharias, who emphasized awareness among Christians that not all Muslims desire war and destruction, but that many do want to share their faith in peace. And just as Christians bristle with annoyance when we’re reminded of what we did during the Crusades, they too hide their faces in shame at what extremists do in the name of Allah.

I applaud them for standing apart and for their desire for peace.

Today, I read an announcement by Alabama governor’s office, stating they would not be allowing any Syrain refugees to enter Alabama.  This comes as a result of one of the Paris bombers having entered Paris on a Syrian refugee passport. There is still some debate among media as to the accuracy of this information, which will probably be cleared up in a few days, but true or not, this does not change how I feel about the actions of Governor Bentley.

I think it’s shameful, foolish, ignorant, and heartless.

Have we as Americans become so fat on our privilege, that we have become willingly ignorant and neglectful of the needy and helpless? I wrote a poem about this once, when I was struck by how self-focused and blind we can be. We have so much, and care so little.

To make matters worse, shortly after I read this announcement, I read this article on CNN, stating that this diseased thought is sweeping our nation. With over, 12 million refugees fleeing the crisis in Syria, we were only willing to take about 10,000 of them here. That’s better than nothing, but it’s only a drop in the bucket. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate that terrorists can exploit their situation, but seriously, 99% of those people are running from ISIS. They’re just people; homeless, starving people. Oh, and half of those 12 million are children.

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Shame on us for this display of cold selfishness. Shame. On. Us.

It’s times like these when honestly I am not proud to be an American. That is not to say that I’m not thankful, I am. I love my freedoms, my home, and my family. I would be the first one to grumble if they were taken away. But I’ve also reached the point where I think we’ve become so used to being and having that we could use a dose of cold hard reality. Most of the world does not be and have like us and many of them are tired of hearing us complain that our light and sweet carmel latte is not hot enough. Or that we don’t have the space or the money to help the starving homeless multitudes.

I am taking this chance to stand apart. Like those muslims I admired, who were brave enough to declare they did not support the extremists of their group, I am saying that Christ loves the needy, reaches for the lost, and desires those who follow him to do the same.

I am saying to you America, Not In My Name!

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World Vision for Syrian Refugees

UNHCR – UN home for Refugee Crisis

A Road Trip with Neil and Charlotte

A few weeks ago, I posted about my struggle with anxiety disorder and depression. After which, I mentioned how I’ve been  pushing my boundaries, forcing myself to stand against the things that most frighten me

On this list is the gradual expansion of my forty-five minute radius safety bubble. I was sitting at about two and a half hours when my in-laws invited us to ride with them to Williamsburg, Virginia, six hours from home.

I’ve always wanted to see Colonial Williamsburg. I love history and museums and I’ve heard that it is super pretty. Another bonus incentive was that the first days’ drive ended after 4 hours, in an overnight at my brother-in-law Ben’s house, to visit with him, Chelsea, and the kids. They have invited Timothy and me down to see them many times, but I was wasn’t ready for the drive. I hated myself each time I said no, especially since I could see how badly Timothy wanted to go. So this time, I took a deep breath, swallowed, and said, “Sure, why not.”

Driving through Pennsylvania
Driving through Pennsylvania

I spent the next few days just blocking the whole thing out of my mind. And on Friday morning, I hopped into the car with my laptop and sat there tapping away on my project for NaNoWriMo, knowing that I would probably only manage a few hundred words for the next 3 to 4 days. The ride was fairly easy, simply because I refused to think about it. I listened to Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs in my earbuds and before I knew it, we were sitting in front of Ben and Chelsea’s beautiful Yellow house.

Then I exploded.

I feel bad, because we were only there overnight, and I was like a zombie. I felt like Bilbo Baggins when he said, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” I hardly interacted with anyone and spent much of the time alone in our room. I stole away my husband for a while and wet his teeshirt with my tears of exhaustion. He kissed my forehead and whispered to me about how brave I was. I was so gone I barely heard him; all I could think about was the 2 to 3 hour drive we had tomorrow.

Though numb and frightened, I managed to begin a chronicle of my journey. That night, my journal entry began with this quote from Neil Gaiman’s, “Coraline.”

Because, she said. when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.

I was not relaxed when I got in the car Saturday morning. I managed to reject Ben and Chelsea’s sweet offer to end my journey there, and wait until Mom and Dad came back through on their way home. I dropped deep down inside my head, to that place where I didn’t think about what was happening. It was harder to find it this time. I held to Tim with my right hand and had my friend Steve in my left, who I texted on and off the whole trip discussing distracting nonsense like what edicts he would pass as the first global dictator. Mom and Dad were off to a wedding, so they left us at the hotel. Tim and I dropped our things and walked a half mile to Colonial Williamsburg.

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Path from the hotel to Colonial Williamsburg

I lived in each individual second, busying myself with the joy of being in a place I’d never seen before. We had a lovely walk together and ate at one of the pubs, before we went back to the hotel room. That was when it got hard. Honestly, that nice little room was the hardest place to be the whole trip. It felt like I was in the waiting room of a hospital, cold and half naked in my dressing gown, waiting for the beginning of major surgery; that surgery being the six hour ride home on Monday.

That night I opened my journal entry with another Neil Gaiman quote. This time from, “The Graveyard Book.”

Face your life, its pain, its pleasure, Leave no path untaken.”

Sunday was the hardest day. I didn’t sleep Saturday night. I was too anxious. And this is not meant to imply that Sunday wasn’t fun; it was lovely. But once daylight faded to nighttime, I fell into pieces in that hotel bed. I cried and shook and paced the floor. Timothy held me and my friend Steve threw me occasional texts, asking me if I was okay. I wasn’t okay. I just wasn’t. What little sleep I got was filled with nightmares about car accidents and eternal loneliness. That night I was too screwed up to write anything in my journal.

Monday morning came. I made my journal entry early that morning, mixing quotes from Neil Gaiman and Charlotte Brontë. A fitting mixture of past and present. I read Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” about a year ago, and since then my love for his writing has bordered precariously on obsession (Not in a creepy stalker way, but in a buy-all-the-books-in-multiple-copies kind of way. The way most authors want to be loved. 😉 ). I can’t help it really. He’s a genius. He has a way of making me laugh and cry and want to be brave all at once. I’ve had that experience with other books, but he is one of the only authors that gives me that experience so consistently. And as for dear Charlotte, I often attribute my love of fiction and literature back to when she blew open my literary world at 9 years old with, “Jane Eyre.”

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Page from my journal

I did not know when we drove away at 10:45 that I we would not get home until 8:30. And it wasn’t until Tuesday that I really had the energy to fully comprehend what I’d done. I’d driven further from home than I’ve been since I was fourteen. I finally saw Colonial Williamsburg. I’d finally seen Ben and Chelsea’s house. It made me feel strong, like a warrior who cleared a battlefield of the enemy and now, weak and bloodied from the effort, silently absorbs her victory from a distant hilltop. I survived and I feel more alive than ever.

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Text Timothy sent me on Monday after I fell asleep in the car. It was a nice thing to wake up to.

© Rachel Svendsen 2015