The Name of the Wind | Book Review

name of the wind

Kote is just a simple barkeep at an quiet inn, but when a stranger comes to town, we learn that he’s so much more than that. He’s Kvothe, the man who has faded into legend, and he’s finally ready to tell his amazing story.

This is one of those books that comes with Baggage. And by Baggage, I mean reviews like this one from the A.V. Club:

“Shelve The Name of the Wind beside The Lord of the Rings…and look forward to the day when it’s mentioned in the same breath, perhaps as first among equals.”

So let me get this out of the way: I genuinely liked this book, I’m planning to read the sequel, and I regret buying a pocket paperback copy, because when the third book comes out, I’ll be stuck with a mismatched trilogy on my bookshelf. But.

For me, this book failed in two ways: in its protagonist’s struggles and in its world construction.

Re: the first. The main criticism I’ve seen and heard of this book is that Kvothe is too perfect and textually, the evidence is pretty damning. Kvothe’s skills are never simply passable or just okay or even pretty good. He’s amazingly talented at just about everything he does, which includes, but is not limited to: acting, languages, memorization, persuasion, all things magic, playing the lute, surviving in the woods, surviving in the streets, figuring out puzzles and patterns, and on and on. Kvothe is accepted into magic school at a younger age than everyone else, is admitted to the Arcanum and moves up in rank faster than anyone else, and he finishes an apprenticeship in half the time it would normally take. He’s confident, driven and rarely if ever doubts himself, plus he has great skin. I loved that – even his complexion is better than everyone else’s.

But protagonists who are super amazing at stuff don’t bother me. Heroes, especially in fantasy, are always going to be extraordinary in some way. Harry Potter is the best Quidditch player Hogwarts has ever seen. The kids in Avatar the Last Airbender master their elements at insanely young ages. Buffy is a highly skilled fighter and incredibly strong. I happily accept all of these things, because all of those characters face such terrifyingly huge conflicts and deal with a lot of internal struggle. And therein lies the trouble with Kvothe – he’s the best at everything, but is never up against someone or something greater than himself. He doesn’t struggle to master anything, he doesn’t have doubts, he doesn’t have any personality weaknesses (minus a touch of narcissism).

Kvothe’s sheer awesomeness weakens the stakes of his own story, and it’s kind of a shame, because I really liked Kvothe in those rare and fleeting moments where it seemed like he had his back against the wall and he was a hero – but a human hero. I was invested when, early on in the book, he’s wandering around, starving and lost… until he has a dream that, in great detail, tells him how to survive in the wilderness. I cared when he sticks up for himself in Hemme’s class, but is punished with a public whipping… until he takes a numbing agent beforehand so he doesn’t feel any pain and isn’t embarrassed about being publicly shamed. If anything, the whole experience boosts his reputation.

Sure, it’s possible that Kvothe is an unreliable narrator. Maybe these things didn’t happen the way he says they did and maybe he’s not as naturally gifted and skilled as he asserts. Early on in the book, he tells the Chronicler that he “burned down the town of Trebon” and “was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in,” but those things aren’t really true when he tells those stories later in the book. But the point of Kvothe telling his life story to the Chronicler is that now we get to know the man – not the legend. Yet, in some ways, I feel like all the reader is allowed to see is the legend, because Kvothe never faces a true challenge thanks to all his mad know-how and skill.

Well, okay. There is one thing Kvothe thinks he’s not very good at: women. And here’s where we get to The Name of the Wind‘s other failing. It’s world building is sloppy in regards to the kinds of characters that are allowed to populate it. (Rothfuss’ book isn’t a special snowflake in this regard; if anything, it’s incredibly, embarrassingly typical.)

The lack of female characters is there from the start, but besides Kvothe’s mother never being given a name, I didn’t really notice it until Kvothe gets to the University. There are few female students and even fewer (i.e. zero) teachers who are women. Kvothe verifies this when he says that, “The ratio of men to women in the University is about ten to one.”

Kvothe points out the lack of female students during the start of his first class when a student named Rian is humiliated by the teacher, Hemme, for being late.

‘Rian, would you please cross your legs?’
The request was made with such an earnest tone that not even a titter escaped the class. Looking puzzled, Rian crossed her legs.
‘Now that the gates of hell are closed,’ Hemme said in his normal, rougher tones, ‘We can begin.’

I was so sure Rian would become a close friend and ally of Kvothe’s later on, because why else would the author consciously decide to limit the number of women at the University so severely if not to inform the plot? Kvothe feels like an outsider at the University, because of his background and prior experiences living a destitute life on the streets. Rian, because of her gender, is treated differently and would be a little separate from the other male students. Yet we never see Rian again, and Kvothe doesn’t become friends with any women, not in the way he’s friends with Sim and Wilem.

Fantasy worlds don’t have to be gender utopias. The world of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is hardly a bastion of equal rights, and it’s better for it, because the author is actively exploring and using his fictional society’s rigid gender constraints to challenge his characters and complicate his plots. Arya, Sansa, Brienne, Cersei, Daenerys (et cetera) are all navigating a world that rejects them and watching their struggles and their triumphs within that world makes for a damn good story. And then there are worlds like Avatar the Last Airbender, where, outside of the water tribes, men and women are fairly equal, but it only makes sense. In this fantasy world, magical powers aren’t gender-based: they can appear in anyone. So, there are many soldiers who are women, heroes and villains who are women, prisoners of war who are women, teachers who are women, freedom fighters who are women, etc. The creators thought hard about the rules and construction of their fantasy world, and it shows.

Kvothe, like anyone else in The Name of the Wind, must study magic. It’s a learned skill in this world – not an innate ability. It doesn’t distinguish between genders. And yet. Few women are at the University, fewer still are equals in Kvothe’s life. Why? This gender disparity also doesn’t affect the plot. The author could have made any number of characters female instead of male and everything, plot-wise and character development-wise, would stay exactly the same. So as I read, I kept circling back to this question of gender disparity in Kvothe’s world, and the only conclusion I could draw was that it was just another failure of imagination. Rothfuss can imagine a world with dragons and sympathy magic, a world where ancient evils lurk and the rules of physics get tossed out the window at every turn, but not a world in which women aren’t a subjugated minority. Imagination tapped out.

I’m not trying to pick on the guy, here. Again, I really did like the book. I promise. And I don’t think Patrick Rothfuss was twirling his beard or whatever, purposefully concocting a fantasy book in which his female characters have little to no agency or importance, if they’re even there at all. I wonder if he even really noticed; he’s a product of our society and of our society’s stories, after all. But that’s exactly why I think it’s useful to critique fiction, particularly fantasy, in this way. As readers, we need to ask for more, but as writers, we need to push ourselves more.

I’ll admit, maybe I wouldn’t have even leveled this critique at The Name of the Wind if all those reviews and all those readers hadn’t told me this book was different. But really it’s just the same old story, where a man is the flawless hero and the women are barely a whisper.

Stray Thoughts:

*I love the story within a story structure of The Name of the Wind, particularly how Kvothe’s story would occasionally be interrupted by the present, making the reader more aware of the nature of story in and of itself. Though I was kind of upset with Bast at the end, in which he (I don’t believe this is a spoiler) ordered Chronicler to direct the story and conversation toward Kvothe’s high points rather than “the darker things.” That is definitely not the kind of story I want to hear (Chronicler is with me on this one), but it does make it clear Bast has his own, very mysterious agenda.

*Speaking of, I’m so intrigued by Bast! We don’t learn much about him, other than that he is not exactly as he appears, and I’m hoping Bast enters into Kvothe’s story in the sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear. Until then, I’m looking forward to diving into Rothfuss’ short story about Bast in the Rogues anthology released last year. (Though I will say, Bast is such a wasted opportunity for a female character. He could have very easily been a she.)

*Ending the first book in a series can be tricky to do, because the story needs to feel complete, but also incomplete. The Name of the Wind hits the mark perfectly: just the right mix of cliffhanger and proper ending. In fact, Rothfuss has great narrative pacing throughout the book. The chapters are never too long (except that one chapter in which four pages were spent discussing Denna’s beauty), and Kvothe stays in each setting long enough that the reader gets to know it, but not too long that the narrative pace gets bogged down.

*Can I have a whole book about Devi, please? We really don’t learn much about her at all, other than that she’s a bad ass moneylender (who collects on debt in nefarious ways) and that she once attended the University, but was presumably kicked out for mysterious reasons. Devi was a huge breath of fresh air in a book where the only other female characters who interact with Kvothe in any substantial way are beholden to him for one reason or another. I really, really hope we see more of her in the sequel.

*When Denna tells Kvothe how she’s noticed his eyes change color depending on his mood, I thought maybe it was a joke, but she was serious, which made me laugh even more.

*On the topic of Denna, I was so worried she would only ever be the mysterious object of Kvothe’s affections and for a good long while, I was right. He spends a lot of time chasing after her and mooning over her beauty, but in the last 200 pages or so, Denna does prove to have a life and agency of her own, and became a genuinely interesting person, instead of a shiny prize for Kvothe.

*There is, or so my research tells me, some release date drama surrounding this trilogy, namely that there is no release date for the third book and fans have been made to wait for several years. They do not like this and demand Rothfuss write faster or they will boycott the final book (lies), and also that he’s a scam artist gone mad with power and greed (really). Simply put, it’s some of the most hilariously self-centered whining I’ve ever read and it is glorious.

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Book Stats:
The Name of the Wind
Patrick Rothfuss
2007. Pocket paperback: 722 pages.

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Daily Rituals: How Artists Work | Book Review

IMG_1554Coffee. I need coffee. Coffee means work is about to begin. I imagine my brain is some kind of super computer from a sci-fi TV show; coffee boots all the lights and gizmos up. I also need daylight. I’m at my most productive in the morning, right when the rest of the world is either shrugging off sleep or trudging to work, but early afternoon works, too. But I have to be careful, because if I let myself waste time right off, it’s extremely difficult for me to get back on track. Nighttime only works when I’m under deadline and desperation is setting it. And I like quiet best, so I can really, truly focus, but the ambient nothingness of coffee shops or libraries works, too. I usually write alone, but I do have my writing person I work really well with, the one who helps me stay on track and offers up good synonyms as needed. My other thing is that I dislike writing in short bursts; I want a good 3-4 hours of dedicated time before I call it quits. Again, I like focus; I like when the rest of the world melts away and it’s just me and the words.

That is how this particular writer works.

And as it turns out, I’m no special snowflake in this. In fact, if Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work proves anything, it’s that my creative process is average. Painfully so. Other fans of the “writing for three or four hours in the morning” schedule include Patricia Highsmith, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Igor Stravinsky, and Maya Angelou. Auden contemptuously said of night owls, “Only the ‘Hitlers of the world’ work at night; no honest artist does,” which made me feel very smug indeed. (I also like imagining the hilarious overstatement of ‘Hitlers of the world’ being delivered with complete sincerity. I mean, come on.)

Okay, okay, so what is this book? Daily Rituals is a collection of entries about the work processes of various writers, painters, composers, philosophers, scientists and et cetera. It’s one of those trivia-esque books where the reader isn’t forced to make their way through in any particular order, but instead, are welcomed to skip around as they like. (I immediately jumped to Stephen King’s entry like the unwashed plebeian that I am. In case you were wondering, King writes every day of the year, beginning in the morning around 8 and not stopping until he reaches his quota of 2000 words.)

That’s actually a decent look at what most of the book is – daily work schedules. (Though for a few artists, like Marilynn Robinson, it’s more a matter of not having a daily schedule. “I really am incapable of discipline.”) And I get that this may not sound like the most scintillating of subjects, but there’s definitely some weird&whacky techniques artists have used to stay productive. Benjamin Franklin, for example, would sometimes write during his daily “cold air baths,” which involved sitting naked in a drafty room for an hour or so every morning. Glenn Gould was known to immerse his hands in scalding hot water for 20 minutes, pop a Valium or two, and spend his late evenings and really, really early mornings talking on the phone to whomever would listen. Ayn Rand took a whole lot of Benzedrine to combat chronic fatigue and would refuse to leave her desk until the day’s work was done, once working 30 hours straight.

It’s true that these stranger factoids were the ones I read out loud to my roommate, but the plodding, boring schedules were the ones I found most aspiring. I liked hearing how Maya Angelou wrote in hotel rooms, because, “It’s lonely and it’s marvelous.” I liked how Jane Austen fit writing into the rhythm and routines of her family’s home, and how she dealt with constant interruptions. And I liked the straightforwardness of Saul Bellow’s routine: “I simply get up in the morning and go to work, and I read at night. Like Abe Lincoln.”

Artists of all stripes, and especially beginning ones, can get really caught up in the process. We want to think that there’s a secret code to be cracked and once we figure it out we’ll be speedily on our way to being extremely productive. But if Daily Rituals is saying anything it’s that there is no secret code. But we knew that.

Bernard Malamud put it this way: “How one works, assuming he’s disciplined, doesn’t matter. If he or she is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help.” To me, discipline here is just showing up. It’s sitting down at your desk (or standing up if you’re a fancy person) and putting in the time. It’s returning to your work time after time and not giving up. I’ll admit, that’s a lesson I’m forced to learn over and over again.

I asked some of my friends who do creative work what their artistic rituals and productive processes look like and these were their answers:

“I like to have background noise when I write. I prefer a mix or a radio station suited to the theme of the story, but anything is preferable to silence. I do enjoy writing in coffee shops, but I’m like one of those people who can sleep anywhere: There are places I like to write, but I’ll do it pretty much wherever I end up. If I can have mental space to concentrate, I can sit down and hammer it out.” – Jennifer (blog: Hey Milwaukee)

“I’m never productive when I’m relaxed. It sounds really unpleasant, but I’ve noticed that I do my best creative work when I’m putting off something else important. If it’s just me and an empty Saturday, I won’t get anything done. But if I have five things to do and time to do two of them, I’m golden. On top of this, I usually work in silence. I’m not sure if I /need/ the quiet, or if I just don’t think to turn music on, but the gentle tension of intense focus in a sunny, echoey room is great for my creative output.” – Elise (tumblr: Sparrow Soup)

“I think I’m one of those rare few who loves to get up early and work. I was far more productive when I had a later-starting job and could just plow into creative things for the first hour of my day. Music helps me get in the flow (no lyrics – I’m easily distracted), but it’s not necessary if I’m working in bits and pieces rather than for long chunks of time. I prefer to settle in for an hour (or longer!) but sometimes that just doesn’t work out, and it pays to be flexible. I like to work in coffee shops (but only if I have headphones), because it’s fun, interesting and a good way to be “social” while still being productive. Nothing really beats sitting down in my own space and just plugging in. I think being surrounded by my own stuff and at my own setup helps me focus. Did I mention I’m easily distracted?” – Claire (tumblr: Orockthro)

“I need a sense of movement while I work. The best snippets come to me while I’m driving home, walking to the store, or taking a hike along a nature trail. Even waking up early, watching the morning open up with a cup of coffee will set me right for the rest of the day, give me a sense of moving forward. Sometimes I’ll measure my steps in words. Sometimes, at work, I’ll recite phrases in my mind dozens of times before I put it to paper. Perhaps these could all be construed as avoidance techniques, but I always seem to meander back to the art eventually.” – Erica (tumblr: O, Architexture!)

Here’s to meandering back to the art.

Book stats:
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
Mason Currey
2013. Hardcover: 278 pages.

Going Cruelty Free

cruelty free products

One of my resolutions for this bright and shiny new year was to switch to cruelty free beauty products, so… I did!

I’ve been wanting to do this for awhile now, but just never set aside the time to properly tackle it. (Embarrassing, I know, since compared to most people, I really don’t have a lot of beauty products.) I stopped buying things willy-nilly in 2014, but I knew I was still using beauty products that had been tested on animals. Maybe it’s just me, but I think torturing and killing animals in the name of lipgloss and eyeshadow is pretty fucking gross and it’s just not a price I’m willing to pay anymore. It was time to give my makeup collection the animal testing exorcism it rightly deserved.

There weren’t too many surprises in the final breakdown of Stuff. By and large, what I already use in my day to day is cruelty free, barring my moisturizer and foundation. I’ll be keeping those non-cruelty free items around until they run out or I find a cruelty free replacement. Nail polish took the biggest hit, as expected, and I get the feeling finding nail polish that’s cruelty free will be the primary challenge going forward. (Some of my nail polish did make the cut, though, like Nailtini and Zoya, so I at least have a good starting point in replenishing my collection!)

Not pictured in the photo above are the inbetweeners: products made by companies that don’t test their products on animals (Urban Decay, Burt’s Bees, Tom’s of Maine, etc.) but are owned by companies that do. Switching to cruelty free makeup is such a no-brainer, but as I researched it more, I found there can be a lot of grey area. I still haven’t decided where I stand when it comes to the inbetweeners, but it’s definitely something that’s going to give me pause the next time I’m shopping for makeup and similar products and I think, overall, I’ll be avoiding those things that fall in the vague sort-of-cruelty-free, but sort-of-not category.

I also ended up with a tiny mystery pile, which solely consisted of Be a Bombshell products. I couldn’t find them on any vetted cruelty free lists… or on any non-cruelty free lists. Their website says they don’t test on animals, but I couldn’t help noticing that all the Be a Bombshell products I have were made in China… where animal testing is required by law. I get the feeling Be a Bombshell might be an inbetweener, but since I haven’t been super impressed with their stuff anyway, I’ll probably end up giving them away in the end.

All in all, I’m not sorry to see my non-cruelty free stuff go, because now, not only is my makeup more in line with my personal values, but I have an excellent reason to go on a cruelty free shopping spree!

If you’re thinking about switching to cruelty free products, here are some of the resources I used to get started:

Going Cruelty Free (video – no graphic images)

Animal Testing 101 (video – no graphic images)

DerpinaMODE’s Cruelty Free + Non-Cruelty Free Brands (list)

Logical Harmony’s Cruelty Free & Vegan Brand List

Leaping Bunny’s Shopping Guide

My Beauty Bunny’s Cruelty Free Brands and Resources (list)

2014: In Review

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Oh, 2014. You could have been so much better than you were. I’m not sure if this is the natural rhythm of the universe or what, but every now and again, I end up suffering through a really junky year. Like 2010. I could say a lot about 2010. And 2014? Also not so good.

I’ve always had a bad feeling about turning 25, and maybe it’s self-fulfilling prophecy or maybe it’s me sensing the cosmic atmosphere or whatever, but I’ve never been less pleased about being proven right. 2014 was, for me, the year I felt entirely out of control of my life. And while we are all at certain whims of the universe, all the things I normally put in the “under my control” column were in the other one and it sucked. And the more I tried to sort things out again and exert a little authority over various life situations, the worse things got and then it was existential spirals forever and ever.

So it was a bad year and I’m not sorry to see it go. But there’s this end-of-year tradition I have where I like to list all the random small and not-small things that happened. So while hardly exhaustive, this is what went on in my little life in 2014:

  • Last-minute adventure drive to Madison to see Julie Nunes perform (this also resulted in a great selfie)
  • …But also ended with me driving home in a snowstorm with bald tires, i.e. the most knuckle-white drive of my life.
  • I went rollerskating for the first time and was none too shabby (rollerskating backwards even!)
  • …Until I fell and fractured my radial head (or elbow, for you plebeians)
  • A weekend trip to Boston for a friend’s wedding and my first 100% solo travel (by which I mean, there was no one waiting for me when I arrived, no one to stay with, no one to wander the city with, etc. and while somewhat empowering, it was mostly lonely)
  • I decided to let go of the idea that I could be a proper vegetarian
  • Logan had a mysterious health scare, which involved a 2am visit to the emergency vet and insanely high vet bills
  • Mom had emergency surgery
  • Had a ’90s-themed birthday party (and dressed as Arnold from Hey! Arnold, otherwise known as pure class)
  • What would have been my first feature byline was unexpectedly cut
  • A string of bad to scary altercations with dudes in the span of a few weeks
  • Spent much of the late spring and entire summer being incredibly stressed and tense due to my work situation
  • I drove to the Twin Cities to visit friends (and celebrated Father’s Day with someone else’s dad… oops!)
  • Saw Tegan and Sara perform at Summerfest (my first Summerfest experience ever, which is semi-ridiculous)
  • Helped a couple friends move out of their apartment
  • …And by doing so, scored a free guitar! (Yay!)
  • My flash fanfiction tumblr I co-run with my roommate hit over 1k followers
  • Spent a quiet weekend on Washington Island with my parents
  • DisneyWorld/LeakyCon trip (…admittedly, both left me rather disenchanted)
  • But I did get to see a bunch of panels featuring YA authors I admire (Rainbow Rowell, Stephanie Perkins, Holly Black, John Green, Laurie Halse Anderson, etc.)
  • Celebrated roommate’s birthday and valiantly drove to five different bakeries to find the perfect birthday cake
  • I drove to St. Louis where my high school best friend and I got up to our usual shenanigans (including sneaking into an abandoned, half-finished amusement park)
  • Hosted a raucous video game night with some of my favorite people (and dressed up as Princess Peach)
  • New job! Same company, but I moved to the copy desk as a copy editor
  • …And fell in love with a whole new medium: podcasts!
  • Random road trip to Ames, where I was reunited with my two nearest and dearest college friends for the first time since 2012
  • My apartment was put up for sale
  • I used up the rest of my vacation time on a trip to Ottawa to visit Japan-friends and merry times were had by all
  • …Though I did fail to appreciate Canadian culture experiences (no on the Tim Horton’s and double-no on the poutine)
  • My uncle passed away
  • Spilled gasoline all over myself while filling up my tank before work one morning (a thing that can happen, apparently)
  • My old roommate came to Milwaukee for a short weekend visit
  • New job! Again! Still at the same company, but now as an editor for a different magazine

I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2015. One of my friends said she thinks 2015 will be an adjustment year, a growing year, and that maybe it won’t be great, but it’ll sow the seeds for great. I’ll take it. This one was certainly a doozy.

Washington Island | Thoughts From Places

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So, this was poorly planned. I was driving up the little eastern branch of Wisconsin to hopefully meet my parents somewhere on Washington Island (5 miles wide, 6 miles long) and my phone was about to die. And I mean, this island isn’t that big, but driving around, hoping I would bump into my parents at some point, was less than ideal. Because literally, I did not know where I was staying that night – my parents hadn’t thought to give me the address of the house they were renting and I hadn’t thought to ask. This was a random weekend trip in May. Unplanned. I’d told myself that I was doing this because I’m spontaneous and I like going places and I hadn’t spent quality time with my parents in awhile, but really, I was running away.

Washington Island is where some of my most visceral childhood memories live. Not many people are lucky to have such a strong connection to their familial roots, but this tiny little island is where my great-great-grandparents decided they would build a life for themselves when they left Denmark for the promises of the United States. The house they built was still standing back when I was a kid. It was a sturdy white house, with stairs so steep you felt like you were falling backwards as you climbed them. There was a fireplace, wood floors and one of those really old-timey stoves that burned blocks of wood. You could hear the waves at night. My brother and I would rub our palms across this soft patch of moss growing on a rock we always passed on our way to our beach where my mom collected pretty, twisted bits of driftwood. At night we had bonfires and roasted marshmallows and scratched at mosquito bites. I think my favorite part, the best part, was the long, winding driveway through the forest. The gravel popped beneath the wheels and wayward branches slid gently along the car. The driveway was shadowy and wild. It felt very Mary Lennox finding the secret garden. Over the crest of the last hill, you’d leave the woods behind and the house and the cleared land around it would lay open in front of you.

The driveway’s gone now and so is the house. And other people have bonfires on the beach.

These days, unless it’s for a funeral, I don’t come back to the island very often. But there I was, nervous and unsure, easing my car into the line for the island ferry. Buying the tickets and squeezing the car onto the ferry was something my father always did. We kids stayed in the backseat, me reading a Goosebumps book and my brother investigating the travel box Mom always put together for us. It’s weird to find yourself on the other side, being the adult who takes care of logistics. But right then, my last little ounce of good luck got cashed, because my dad was suddenly walking towards me and my car. I’d gotten in line right behind them. That’s the kind of fantastic, fortuitous timing the universe hasn’t deemed me worthy of since.

For once, it all worked out. And then we were on the ferry, then on the island itself. We drove past the one school, then the one grocery store. Because I do only come to this place sporadically, I always feel like I’m checking in with both the physical space (there’s a new coffee shop! a new bookstore! the used video place is gone!) and with myself (the college senior going to my grandmother’s funeral, the high schooler tooling around the island with my best friend, the little kid petting the goats that live on and off the roof of the island bookstore). Memories compete with my real-time view. It’s strange.

The place my parents had rented was picturesque: surrounded by fields rather than neighbors. My dad was there to do his turkey hunting thing (this is the Wisconsin dad modus operandi), and my mom was there to relax and be away from it all. Me? I brought a stack of books, as always. I read a lovely Sarah Dessen novel (Lock & Key), Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (mind-blowing), then I moved briskly on to Alan Moore’s Watchmen. (I like to keep my reading choices in a strange crack-the-whip kind of motion.)

Tonally, Watchmen felt very much at odds with my surroundings (dark, industrial panels against my sunny, country backdrop). Maybe I should have been reading Walden or something. But in some ways, Watchmen was weirdly appropriate. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff going on there about the superhero narrative (see: deconstruction of) as well as what level of power&faith we give to the government and other cultural symbols – all very interesting. But disregarding all of those thematic buckets, what stood out most to me were the discussions about time.

“There is no future. There is no past. …Time is simultaneous.”

This character talked at length about the infinite circularity of the universe and time, but I would argue that it depends on what distance you’re standing from. There is an end, but there isn’t an end. The stars above are there, because they’re shining for you, but they’re also gone – just “old photographs.” I think the trick to it all is being able to hold both ideas in your mind at once: endings that don’t end.

I was thinking about all this when my dad and I decided to walk down the once-driveway to where the family homestead used to be. (Trespassing? Technically. I like to think we had some kind of ancient, ancestral right to walk there, though.) The people who’d bought the place had carved a new driveway through the woods, but old paths through the forest take time to disappear.

When I crested the hill, it was a sad shock to see the sturdy white house gone, a completely different house in its place. (I realized I’m biased, but this new house has far less character to it.) The decrepit barn was gone too. (This was where my dad stored his dirt bike and where I could hear bats chittering and chirping in the rafters.) The “snake pit” was still there – originally a pig pen when my great-great-grandparents first lived here, but so named the snake pit once the pigs left and the tall grass grew. Dad showed me a square outline of bricks in the ground. When he was a kid, this is where the outhouse stood – it was demolished before I ever stepped foot on the island. His version of this place, the one he held in his memory, was different from mine. That was something to think about. I’d always assumed ours were the same.

I didn’t find the mossy rock when we walked to the beach. And the waterline was far off in the distance across a muddy bog. It used to touch my toes in tiny rushes of wave. Dad said it looked something like this when my grandmother was a girl, but worse. She used to walk to a neighboring island, because the water was so low. I can’t ask her what that was like, but it was nice to imagine her tromping through the mud, taking what adventurous advantage she could over such a paltry shore. Did she think it was strange for the water to be so close when she walked this beach holding my hand? Same place, different place.

My dad seemed surprised and relieved that I remembered so much of what once stood on that once-familial patch of island land. My brother doesn’t have childhood memories of the Island at all – he was too young at the time to pin them down, so I try to remember for the both of us. That was why it took me so long to go back there. I didn’t want to lose the clarity of memory that I had, because then it would mean my little childhood place really was gone. Some things you can’t unsee, after all. But it wasn’t like that – it isn’t like that. I still see my version most clearly, and I like that there’s more than just mine, and there will be more to come.

But I’ll let myself imagine that there are some constants in all of this, the things that don’t change, though change is inevitable. Like the air, the freshest air you can imagine. All pine and lake. The kind of air that makes you feel as though you can live forever.

And it’s always been a great place to see the stars.