1. Tell Me How I Love You
According to Achak’s father in What is The What, by Dave Eggers, man chose cattle over The What when God offered a choice between the two. But not all of us are satisfied with cattle. We keep wondering, “What is The What?”
Even if we found it, could we describe it? Surely I am not the one for the job. I’m terribly distracted. I open and close windows. I like video games. I let my toddler play in the flowering mint (bees). I’m not the one you want making definitive statements about the Ineffable. I don’t drink enough. I’m a liar, and I’m always sad. I’m selfish. I borrow other writers’ words. Dear Husband, I have a selfish way of saying, tell me how I love you.
2. But First—
My son is almost three. He and The What came from the same place, I think. His departure from there is still so recent he has yet to begin seeking what he lost. For now, he is working on this world’s language, logic, legitimacy. Music. Physics. Mischief.
We live on the edge of a continent. Our world teeters between land and sea, washed in whimsical coastal weather. Here, cusp is truth. Liminal is how things are, and the World is a story we make up. And tear down. And make up again.
Yet the World persists, however much in our minds. Adults describe, prescribe, proscribe, and conscribe the World. I’ve learned how a parent cannot help but function as a lens for a child’s eyes. It will be a gradual process to remove myself, and because I’m not perfect, I’ll leave relics. My child will have to unsee what I have lovingly, carefully, and of course, mistakenly, shown him.
And then, because this is what humans must do, he’ll gather the relics and remnants and truths and begin to build. Maybe he’ll build a video game. I hope he will become, at least, a good and thoughtful gamer, who can see and savor the blood sport and beauty of a well-made RPG.
3. Into the Narrow North
I played games as a child. I stopped in junior high and was twenty-seven years old when I started again. I bought a PlayStation 2 so I could watch movies on DVD. It was only by accident that I wandered into the games section at Blockbuster, where I found Final Fantasy X, with beautiful CG images on its packaging—a dancing girl with a mage’s staff, a boy with a water-sword standing in the ocean—and shortly thereafter, my childhood collapsed in a heap. I emerged an adult. I had played a video game and loved it and somehow, miraculously, it was my own experience—I didn’t have friends who gamed, I didn’t know if I was doing it “right.” Final Fantasy X was my long journey into a narrow north. I went to see what was there. I went alone. No one interpreted the experience for me. No one translated it into other words, put it into another context, or shared a similar experience. No one cared and no one even knew about it, not really.
To a large degree, I had been left to my own devices in my twenties. Not my family, not even my cohabitating boyfriend was really looking at me. I can see now how addictive that unasked-for privacy was, and what an entirely unrepentant junkie I still am. I crave physical privacy. Intellectual privacy. Creative privacy.
In Ashtanga yoga, the student is advised to practice saucha (cleanliness). I’m no expert, and my asana practice is on a long hold, but I understand this instruction to mean, in part, keeping one’s mind clear and clean, and not doing things or going out among those who are doing things that are unhealthy or do not support your practice. Yogis need saucha. Writers need saucha. Gamers need saucha. I pulled this off fairly well until parenthood began. (Dear Child, I am trying to be better.)
5. I Am the House
Parenthood. I’m humbled by the weight, stakes, and cost of my obligations. I’m not entirely sure I’ll come through the early years of raising a small human with any of my earlier qualities, interests, energies, relationships, or capacities. I may be better, or I may be worse. Some days tend toward the latter and I want to run away, far away, to a forest hut surrounded by wind chimes and tall grass. Or I yearn for eighty hours to immerse myself in a game. How could I want this? Am I really a mother who wants to be alone and write, a mother who could spend so much time so unproductively playing? These possibilities cause me physical pain. There is some consolation in present beauty: a funny toddler, my spring garden. Some solace in memory: the Ridorana Cataract in Final Fantasy XII. You arrive by airship and can head for the Pharos, a monster tower, or you can turn around and walk to the edge of the cliff where your ship’s golden anchor gleams. Look out to sea. The sky is cloudless and blue, a power sky, and the water is far, far below. The cliff is a threshold, a melancholy breeze wavers over it. I used to open a save file here and let the view and music play while I moved around my snowbound Michigan house. This is how I remember that very private Home: a place where I tried to amplify something I could not name, that feeling of ecstasy and grief, distance and intimacy. Snow. Writing. Games.
In Final Fantasy XII, sea-gazing is an extra-narrative moment. You have to turn around to find it. You have to stand still.
Home is different now. The other was a cloister. This one is decoherence, my world of daily obliteration and creation. Think of the New World seekers who dismantled their magnificent ships for the raw materials to build their houses. Once, I was the ship. Now, I am the house. I create the chaos protocol. Though sometimes I would rather blame him, or them, for the mess, for the wind, for the dusty video games on the shelf.
Where does permission come from? Am I still a gamer if I haven’t finished an RPG in three years? My meditation teacher shows me how all questions boil down to one question: What is this (gesturing to the body, the I)?
Alain de Botton says: To care deeply about a field that achieves so little, and yet consumes so many of our resources, forces us to admit to a disturbing, even degrading lack of aspiration. Here de Botton is writing about the reverence for beautiful buildings in The Architecture of Happiness. One could say architects get into architecture because they love beautiful buildings. I got into games because I love beautiful games, and I consider beauty a fine aspiration for a human life. What is the What?
7. I Open the Window
Gaming is like writing in that I must do it in order for it to work. I must be near the temple to hear its bell ring. CD Wright: I open the window so that the glory cloud can come and go.
Gaming is different from writing in that playing the game is not the art. Art comes later, after I’ve paid attention to a game for a long time, long enough to understand it. To know it.
I open my windows so tenderness can ride in on the glory cloud.
8. Loose Parts
The “loose-parts theory” of twentieth-century British architect Simon Nicholson goes like this: “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.” I encountered these words in Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv. Louv mentions this theory in the context of playground design. I thought not of children. I immediately thought of video games.
The best kind of video game—long, deep, and open-ended—is a loose-parts toy. This might sound odd because gamers encounter a game as a finished product, pre-digested for us by Advertising. We’ve been told how to perceive the game, how to feel about it, what it will mean to us. A game is supposed to be finished being made by the time I sit down to play it, but to truly succeed in my eyes, a game will be entirely frangible: it will collide with me and shatter. I suspect that the best game makers already know that they are building ships of borrowed wood, and that after a ship sails it must eventually ground itself, break up, and be strewn against the shore in parts. The tide brings its fragments to me.
9. The Practice of Adjacency
Writing is a loose-parts game. We aim for the most harmonious (or potent) arrangement of objects, images, feelings, events, and characters. With this practice of energetic and physical adjacency, we might get lucky and resolve an incongruity—at least for ourselves.
In A Note on Incongruence, AR Ammons says there is often an incongruity between our feelings and how we express them. With a poem, we might achieve a “linguistic correction” of the incongruity. Because “an object can reflect and interpret feelings,” the poet sifts her loose parts for the right object or image to arrange in the poem. The right image feels like a revelation, a glory cloud. Possibly, The What.
To resolve, or at least tangle with, incongruity is the duty of every human. I’m not paramaniacal—life is full of troubles. Poems and stories don’t pay the rent, but if in the writing of them a writer finds relief, they should be written. Writing is not healing, but the pleasure given by the excellent use of language is some kind of medicine for me.
10. Simplifying Things Which Seem Impossible
St. Teresa of Avila didn’t play video games and she didn’t exactly choose to write. She had visions.
Her most famous vision was of an angel who stabbed her again and again and left her completely afire with a great love for God. Fire is transformation. Fire is final. But Teresa was still alive and felt ill: For three months I have been suffering from such noises and weakness in the head that I find it troublesome to write even about necessary business. Despite this, her superior nuns commanded Teresa to write things for the other nuns to read. The assignment frightened her.
Fortunately, Teresa believed in discipline: As I know that strength arising from obedience has a way of simplifying things which seem impossible, my will gladly resolves to attempt this task, although the prospect seems to cause my physical nature great distress. So, obedience gave her the strength to cope with her affliction, to endure the incongruity between her will and her body. I believe writing must have helped her in the end, too. Loose parts games are good for us. Making worlds, as she does in Interior Castle, is energizing, empowering. It can be physically restorative to make. I recall how strong I felt while practicing Ashtanga yoga for several years. I disciplined my body and my mind followed suit. I didn’t feel incongruous anymore. I felt calm. I had resolved one of my lifelong issues—my body—and the rest of life seemed fairly simple for a time.
In her poem “On the Vanishing of Large Creatures,” Susan Hutton writes: “In bed the body’s glorious grasp on its own anatomy / will move off with its pleasure, and the shapes of the bones, / the muscles, the tendons must all be relearned.” My glorious grasp has indeed moved off and I will not find it again.
There’s something about raising a very young child that feels like living in a house with all of the windows wide open all of the time. There are too many loose parts. I’ve gone a bit mad, Teresa.
We are not committed until we have dismantled our own escape routes. I cannot relearn the shape of something I have given away. I gave my anatomy, my ship, to my child.
This is Death terrain, says Sun Tzu in The Art of War, because there is no way out, but Sun Tzu was thinking about the battlefield. I’m sure he never turned his back on the enemy in order to gaze at the sea, exposed, dismantled, listening. He didn’t know about The What. He wasn’t afire with god. He did not know there would be Bösendorfer pianos and Mars rovers. He never played Final Fantasy XII.
Further Links and Resources:
- All photos accompanying this essay are used with the permission of Christine Hartzler. Follow her photoblog Our Hereafter.
- Read Christine Hartlzer’s essay “Games Are Not About Monsters,” which was published by FWR in 2009 and selected for Dzanc’s Best of the Web 2010.
- You can also check out Mike Rudin’s 2010 essay on how the next great American novel just might be a video game.