Episode 35: Welcome to Night Vale - Unless You're Time. Time is not welcome (Part 2)


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            “Dear, be kind to the mothers of Night Vale. Have pity on us. It’ll be no easier for Diane. Things go strange here. Your children forget you, and the courses of their lives get frozen. Or they change shapes every day, and they think that just because they look completely different you won’t be able to recognize them. But you always will. You always know your child, even when your child doesn’t know you.”

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            There's something about Night Vale's technically non-existent relationship with time that truly sets it apart as a potentially unintentional but nevertheless beautiful artistic choice. It gives the creative team free reign to explore a dimension of the human experience that can be taken for granted or written off as an inevitability not worth considering.

            And that may be a nice description. But tht doesn’t mean it makes things any clearer for you. So let me put this simple: in Night Vale, you have change but not time. People change, but it can’t be attributed to the current generated by the movement of a calendar. Personal evolution isn't as inevitable as you could otherwise be inclined to think of it. Because we don’t grow with every year when there are no years.

            Rather, for better or worse, in Night Vale, the issue of change has been wrestled back into the hands of the person experiencing it. Change now happens with a sense of intention or a purpose. Events happen, and we are left to decide what comes next. It becomes a matter of acceptance and interpretation. Or something you can chase, if you're daring.

            Of course, that can't be entirely the case. Simply because no one lives in a bubble and nothing we do is ever going to be completely without consequence and complication for those around us. We just try to ignore it sometimes, least it drives us crazy. Instead, we go on living anyway. You will make your choices, and other people will make theirs. And, well, you're going to have to reconcile the differences at some point.

            Which can be the hardest part.

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            Hi. It's M. Welcome to episode 35.

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            Today, it’s the second episode of the show's first planned two parter episode. A stylistic choice forced because it allowed me to discuss each of the protagonists of the first Welcome to Night Vale novel in turn. Which was important to me because I had a different take away from each of their stories, and I don’t want to prioritize one over the other. Partially because that means separating the two, at least in my mind, and—honestly—even on that front. I don’t think that is possible.

            Which makes complete sense and feels appropriate, albeit in a very forced way. Or not forced. It may be just part of keeping the artistic integrity of Night Vale in place. Welcome to Night Vale as a podcast is a glimpse into the life of a full-fledged town, complete with a full array of citizens or characters who would have their own misadventures simultaneously. Sometimes they are interesting, sometimes they are fight against a mysterious force or an invasion from the bowling alley. Other times, they’re trying to cook dinner and maybe realize they’re out of an ingredient and might be panicking. Just like in our towns and cities, life goes one for each and every person. All the time, simultaneously. They can each take their turns in the spotlight, but just because they were in the figurative dark doesn't mean their life has ever truly stopped.

            The novel also replicates this by featuring these two main characters, individuals whose lives sometimes overlap and sometimes don't who just so happen to both be entering new phases of their life. Or are on the cusp of it. If they so choose. And this is how people live. Sometimes we come together briefly, and then we go our separate ways. Maybe we're better off for the encounter. Maybe we are worse off. Maybe we're largely the same just, well, annoyed.

            And just like a town can have multiple or many narrative arcs unfolding at once, so can a person. Even in the context of one life, the same theme can be manifested multiple ways simultaneous. And because this is my show I can explore one time when two different lines in my life met before having to go their separate ways yet again.

            It's just what happens when things change, I guess. You then have to reconcile the differences after the fact.

            Because, yes, all that stuff that I talked about last week happened. I went to graduate school to try and find the person I had become and the life she wanted to live because college had given me the brutal realization that she exists and needed to be found. I was trying to become her. I was changing. All that I talked about last week happened and kept happening. And I wasn't the only one trying to make sense of this new era in my life or of what it meant for me to be figurative twenty-three. It went beyond that. It always goes beyond that. It always ensnares other people in its wake.

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            Diane Crayton is Night Vale's PTA treasurer. She's one of those moms whose fortunate that she loves being a mom so much. Because when she had a child who then consumed her life as all children do, she found happiness despite the circumstances that led to this child or the ones that came after. Not all parents are like that. And to be fair, kids really aren't for everyone. They can come with a great deal of problems and challenges. And you need to be willing to accept that long before you enter into it. Especially when they are shape-shifters like Diane's son Josh. (Pause) Actually that's a very Night Vale specific problem. But you know what I mean.

            Or, actually, it might not be a Night Vale specific problem. Sometimes mothers can't recognize their own children because they take a new shape. Their children grow too quickly. Their features fall into different places. They grow extra limbs… (Pause) You know what. I'm going to stop right there before I make things any worse for myself.

            Diane is trying to track a son who is always changing. His physical form will be different each time she looks at him, so she can’t rely on her eyes the same way other mothers do. And then Josh’s father shows up in a very mysterious fashion. So mysterious that he hasn't even aged since the last time she saw him. That's like a mystery cherry on top of a not ideal sundae. It’s cause for concern. Many thing about his father are cause for concern, but Josh doesn't seem to get that. But he would if they actually met, which is a disaster Diane wants to prevent. Because she loves her son, genuinely. But the best way to do that is also going to change.

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            The realization that I didn't want to be a lawyer hit me quickly. It was probably one of the first little epiphanies I had in this grand shift in my life. And it was fairly easy for me to be confident about it. After all, it was a very specific yes-no question. In the absence of nuance, what little sense of agency I had could easily take root.

            It was also the first big break from character that I felt comfortable telling other people about. I started with my college, at first, and they listened, though it came as a shock to say the least. In fact, I don't think they really believed me the first time I said it. So I had to repeat myself. Again and again. Until finally, they could believe they were hearing what they thought they were hearing. I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I wasn’t going to be a lawyer. I refuse to be a lawyer.

            I don't blame them for not understanding right away. This newfound conviction of mine went again everything I had ever told them about myself and so many of the things they had likely noticed about me. I was taking apart the image that had previously been my embodiment. Not myself but something that might as well have been myself.

            I was good at arguing, at finding the one loophole that made me right on a technicality. I loved nuance and thought puzzles. I loved the very sort of challenges that came with the legal profession. But I also liked looking over all the things I didn't want to do. All the things about a legal profession that I didn’t like. But that was more a matter of survival than anything else.

            Now, suddenly, I was moving away from all that. And in doing so, I was dismantling a larger than life fresco, seemingly throwing away all the work or materials that went into making it, throwing it all down the drain without overt reason or clear justification. There was a reason, obviously. But that was just more information for them to take in. More time would be needed to sort through it all, and even at that point in my life, as young and immature as I still technically was, I could accept that. I could wait.

            Because, in some way, I was vaguely aware of what was happening and how difficult it could be to see from an outside perspective. Simply put, I was shapeshifting. On the inside more so than the outside, and that type of shapeshifting takes even more time to map out never mind accept, even for a dear friend. So it would take them a while to make sense of what they were seeing. But in time, they did, and they did so more quickly than I would have expected.

            But these were also people I saw every day. We were bound together by a common geography. The campus boundaries were more definitive than we were inclined to admit, but so much of our life was defined by the simple fact that we were sharing that space. In this case, even if they weren't aware of it, they were going through this change with me, and I was going through their changes with them. Slowly at first but building momentum over time.

            Yes the words were hard to hear at first. Hard as in surprising. But all the same, we grew into them. They came to fall against our bodies perfectly, and they became almost like a second skin. But not. This was actually our new normal. Not just a skin but an entire world. The normal of yesterday had become just a memory or ring within our core.

            And then there was my poor mother. Across a country that never seems to realize how large it actually is. What about her? What about she who was not there to witness the gradual process that was this change?

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            I've mentioned before on the show that my mom and I didn't have the best relationship after my father passed away. That as a couple does after the death of their child, we turned on each other, treating each other as the closest but misguided target for the blind fury that we felt in response to this grand injustice. After all, every force that was actually responsible wasn't there to yell at. The other person was.

            I take my share of the responsibility for what I did and for whatever happened that was started and/or fueled by typical teenage angst. I’m not innocent. I know this. Then I left for college. And suddenly she wasn't the closest target anymore for my anger anymore. In fact, there was no one around I could snap at. And without a target, anger became harder to maintain. And slowly but surely, the storm within me calmed. There was also a lot of self-reflection and personal growth. But because of that beneficial distance, she didn’t see any of it.

            So from her end, it was sudden. Abrupt. One moment I was the person she had always known. And then the very next one we got to share together, I wasn't that person anymore.

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            Maybe it’s obvious, but I don't have kids myself. Both as a choice and as an inevitability, which was a joke that might not have landed well. But the point I’m trying to get at is that I can't imagine what it must be like to have children: to have something not only be so small and delicate but also be cherished above all things. Your destruction is just so easy and possible, and it must be exhausting to have the core of your being rushing around outside of you where you can’t easily protect it. That's how much a good mother loves her kids after all. She can and should have her own life but those children are the foundation to her heart. Without that structure, well, we’ll find out if that organ has the stability necessary to go on.


            Here's a statement that will ruffle some feathers: destruction is a type of change though maybe not one we recognize as such. However, in destruction, something has become nothing, and transformation is the hallmark of change. Differences define if change has occurred not the presence of value. So while my mother could see that a change was happening, she braced herself for a worst case scenario type of change. That is, she anticipated my destruction not my growth. That's what my mother thought was happening. That's what she had feared would happen. Nightmares aren't meant to blend into reality. But sometimes they do anyway.

            And when that happens you have to stop it, don't you? You have to protect your child. You have to force whatever is eating away at your child back for the sake of that child. And that part is completely logical and understandable. In fact, we’d criticize any parent who doesn’t do that or even hesitates. This is a simple belief we all share. In fact, it seems like common sense.

            The problem is: what if that is your child you’re pushing back and you’re just misidentifying the normal process of growing up as a threat?

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            Mom could tolerate the idea of my going to graduate school. Lawyers can get master's degrees. Many of them do. It's not required. It's not a detriment. It is a variation of that life path, a completely acceptable one. Not everything is a variation, though. Then comes the law school applications. Preceding that is the LSAT exam. I did not take that exam. I did not schedule that exam. I did not study for that exam. And that is when she grew concerned.

            It wasn’t just about law school. She was looking so much farther ahead. I mean, it didn't help my case that I accidentally had a job lined up for myself when I finished law school and passed the bar exam. Neither of which was going to happen now. This job was at the office of a friend's dad, if you were wondering, whose own children were taking different career paths. But he still had that age-old urge to pass down his office to a perceived offspring. It was a natural inclination, some might say. But for me, it was a guaranteed job. Actually, it was all just a roundabout case of nepotism or more direct nepotism depending on how you want to interpret that principle exactly, but that’s not the point here.

            And while I hate nepotism, I’m not going to pretend that I don’t see the personal appeal of a guarantee for or as a millennial in this day and age. I mean if we’re all struggling for jobs, who’s to look a gift horse in the mouth? It’s something my mother also understands all too well as she does the struggle that could be called its inverse. You see, she works at a place that a lot of young people end up working for a barely livable wage when nothing else has worked out for them. She tells me about it. And it’s hard. Undoubtedly.

            So to her, her daughter had a dream job waiting for her, and her daughter understood the importance of embracing the one leg up in life she was going to get. So why the sudden change of heart? It couldn’t be good, she assumed. Really, she didn’t know what it was. Technically, it could have been good or bad, but after everything she had been through in life, she was always inclined to lean towards the bad.

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            And so the fights started up again. Across the country and largely over text messages. It wasn’t always over text messages, but it got to that point. So they might not have been fights after all. Once you cross mediums, you need to reevaluate what is happening because the standards and the ways of communicating them have changed. Which I didn’t do in that moment, and which is hard to do in hindsight of a couple years. It can be done easily, I will admit, but accuracy is the issue. Accuracy is what I care about. Perhaps it’s not fair of me to call them that. It’s hard to fully know what someone means over a text message, and yet we’re becoming more dependent on text-based communications…. Not necessarily a bad thing if we can learn to adjust. We just haven’t learned to adjust. Yet. Not fully. Or not me.

            They started before I left for the city, though. They were just more subtle, more about reinforcing a point that as far as my mother had largely been set but was now drifting apart. Not too far gone. Nothing that can’t be salvaged. But this wasn’t an outside issue or a storm that needed to be chased away. It was her daughter. A daughter she didn’t immediately recognize.

            She started by picking apart the alternative plans and dreams being presented to her. In my hands but not by me, she assumed.

            Living in the city would be hard, she said. Have you thought about parking, she said. What about rent, you need proof of income in order to rent, she asked. What about this or that. What about this detail that if I didn’t plan accordingly was going to send my life spiraling. What about PhD admissions? Whose was going to write my recommendation letters? What was I going to do if that person didn’t want to? Was I going to have enough time in my master’s program to get a professor there to write one? After all, with the PhD application schedule being what it is, it might be assumed that I should have one, but building up that professional relationship might not be possible in that short period of time. But law school applications have a more rolling system, I didn’t have to worry about, she pointed out. I could just send them off now-ish and the admission office would know there had been no time to solicit a professor at this new institution.

            It all seemed so straightforward to her. This plan I had in my hands was bad. It had been forced on me, and now it needed to be pushed away. She was happy to do that on my behalf. She was happy to attack whatever force had seized her daughter and lead her astray. However, she wasn’t attacking an unseen demon. But her daughter, a daughter she was struggling to recognize.

            And maybe it wasn’t attacking at all, but I heard it that way. I heard it that way because the (sometimes overly) supportive mother I had always known suddenly didn’t seem so supportive. She had shifted from mother to guardsman. I had shifted from static jewel to a wandering soul.

            And for a moment, we didn’t recognize each other, which is what led her to strike.

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            Maybe this is obvious to you, but it took me a while to fully realize something. A sense of loneliness can seize you in a crowd if the crowd is full strictly of people you can’t or no longer recognize. Or in a household that you used to call home but doesn’t look like home anymore. Or in a new apartment clutching your cell phone and debating whether or not to text the person you had come to rely on.

            Those first few weeks in the city were the hardest. I didn’t want to tell her that. I didn’t want to tell her that my kitchen stove was a gas stove that I didn’t know how to use, so when the burners didn’t turn on, I assumed it was user error and not that the lighter was out. Which meant I never called building maintenance. Which meant I was eating one meal a day at one of the restaurants nearby and filling the other meals with granola bars and instant noodles to stay in budget.

            I cried more than a few times. Then I didn’t. Then I did again.

            I didn’t tell her this. I felt compelled to hide this. After all, if she wasn’t on my side, then, well, I wasn’t going to give her any ammo to use against me.

            A few weeks went by. We still talked but not as much as we would have liked and not about the things I needed to talk about. She heard it in my voice. She asked me about it. I had nothing. I had always been the type to say little to nothing. My brain and mouth are just are two different wavelengths, and well, I just don’t always want to deal with it. And I’m always more interested in what other people have to say because everyone has their own story and perspective. Some are bad, but I haven’t had the displeasure of seeing too many of them. And also, other people’s thoughts are new and exciting to me. Mine have been beaten to death by repetition.

            In this, my mother recognized me. And then she realized it was her daughter she had been picking apart. Only her daughter. Not a monster, not a bad idea, not someone else’s wishes for me, but her daughter. Her daughter was the only being that had been here. And she had turned on her.

            Cue the moment of recognition. Unshakeable recognition.

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            By the time the Night Vale novel came out, Mom and I had started the process of reconciliation. She had stepped back, recognizing that I wasn’t a child anymore but an adult that needed support not lecturing. That’s what had happened when she was looking: I had shapeshifted into an adult. Because, you know, growth is a type of shapeshifting. It’s a type of change. It’s just not as dramatic as some of the other ones.

            Mom tuned back in to this new channel I was broadcasting on. When she heard I was excited for this book, she tried the Night Vale podcasts as a way of reaching me but struggled to figure out how to even listen to a podcast. She has a new cell phone now, though. As a Christmas gift, which makes this whole thing a lot easier. But back then, all she could do was listen and hope her daughter could find it in her to speak again.

            And I did. In time, when I was ready, which was when I could start to see things from her point of view. Because understanding that she didn’t mean to hurt me was surprisingly important.

            Diane’s story actually was the key to all of this. My mother would have never told me hers, but riding Diane vicariously forced me to see what my mother had been thinking.

            So now let me add my own two cents to that age old wisdom found in the quote I opened this episode with. Dear be kind to the mothers with a Night Vale heart. Not a heart that devours or engage in conspiracy-esque surveillance. But the heart that see the innate dignity and beautiful in your heart. A dignity worthwhile as anyone else’s but has a distinctly “you” flair to it. Have pity. It was no different for my mothers, and it may not be for yours. Things in life go strange.

            Their children may forget about them or forget the person they tried to be, and the courses of our lives will seem to stop and stall or lurch forward at unpredictable speeds from the distance at which they must view them. Or we will change shape, almost daily and make it hard to recognize us. But a mother with a Night Vale heart will always try.

            They will always know their child at a very deep, unfathomable level. If we give them a chance there.

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