“And the memories fade and blend and smudge together…” – The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman
I discovered Neil Gaiman through Tori Amos. Isn’t that how you always discover lovely, life-changing things? It always starts with an allusion or a reference or a footnote, a breadcrumb of something you don’t know but want to know. The digging for it, the research that takes you down the rabbit hole–that’s the adventure–is up to you. So I discovered Neil Gaiman when Tori said that Neil said Hi and that she’d be hanging with the Dream King during Tear in Your Hand.
I read bits of Sandman here and there, but devoured all of Death. I started Good Omens but stopped half way through because life demanded my attention. Then I went on a two-week vacation with my parents during college, our last family vacation before Life Got Complicated and I read American Gods while Tori’s Scarlet Walk played on my Discman. The two pieces of art complement each over very well, syncing up the way Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz sometimes do.
But I digress. Like so many other people, I admire Neil Gaiman’s words. His ability to push and pull them together, string and knot them like pearls, fashioning them into beautiful worlds that you can dive into and surface only when you want to. These are things I haven’t done yet, or have tried to do and show no one, save my husband.
Then he started writing Doctor Who episodes and then fell in love with (then married) Amanda Palmer (another artist I also adore). So there are many reasons I admire Neil Gaiman.
The first time I met Neil Gaiman at a signing, it was at Agnes Scott College. Kim had drove to a tiny bookstore to stand in line for tickets, taking a friend to secure me a ticket. (Thank you, Travis.) It was winter and we stood out in the cold waiting and bookstore volunteers gave us freshly baked pumpkin cookies and we wrote questions on note cards. He answered mine about why he included Rock City in American Gods (it was all the billboards and barns and the fact that it was a place that shouldn’t exist but does). We waited for three or four hours. I watched people open mint copies of Sandman, and other beautiful, rare books I’d never seen at comic stores or conventions to be signed. I bought a hardcover of American Gods, and I mentioned something about including Rock City. Kim had a short story collection signed, the one with the grail story. Gaiman drew a grail cup at the top of the page. We had other things signed for friends, or their children–there’s not use in being a dragon and hoarding everything away for yourself.
This is a picture from this night. It was only taken a couple years ago. I feel like I was so much younger, it was before So Many Complicated Things. I have no idea why Kim is kneeling. But it always makes me smile.
Fast forward to this year. Gaiman announces his last signing tour. He also announces he’s coming to Nashville. Tickets are purchased immediately. But what to get signed? What would mean the most? It has to be something special.
So I bought myself a beautiful blank River Song diary for autographs for my birthday. Because unless it’s an author, I usually just get those glossy 8 x 10 photographs they have at their tables signed and then put them away, only taking them out occasionally when I’m cleaning. Why not put them all in a book? It seems like a very smart, and very River Song thing to do.
Knowing how these things go, I prepared myself for a long journey, drinking energy drinks with ridiculous names, and making bad traffic decisions and wearing mostly comfortable clothes and just letting my hair do whatever it wanted.
The reading was beautiful. It began thundering soon after Gaiman came on stage and he mentioned he’d promised himself he’d read the chapter that had a storm in it if it ever stormed during the tour. He talked about why he started writing the book–he missed Amanda because she was recording Theatre is Evil, which is magnificent and absolutely worth your time. Then he read softly about a scared little boy running away from a monster in a wet farm field and the rain and thunder played softly against the roof of the auditorium. Suddenly Bela Fleck was playing banjo on stage while Gaiman read a portion of “Fortunately, the Milk.” It was magical.
Then the signing began, with the announcement that rows would be picked from a hat. So the waiting began. There was music by Street Walk Symphony. They sang Radiohead’s Creep, so I jumped up and asked Kim to dance, because it’s his favorite song in the whole world. We swayed together in our cramped little row, singing the lyrics together, to each other, to ourselves. Then there was more waiting. And there was wine and beer. Jokes about this being like Hunger Games for book nerds. And conversations with friends and strangers who became friends and finally, around midnight, our row was called.
As volunteers helped us queue with our books, I began thinking of what I wanted to say. I hadn’t given it much thought, but I wanted to mumble something along the lines that I adored him and Amanda both separately and something about them being together and them sharing tiny bits of their lives–or sometimes not-so-tiny bits of their lives–gives me hope as a journey throughout my life with Kim.
But then suddenly time sped up and I was suddenly in front of him and he was signing to Kim and Rachel in my copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane and then I handed him the blue book, asking him meekly, “If you could please..”
“What a lovely TARDIS-y journal,” he said, letting out a tiny sigh of exhaustion. He took his fountain pen–and after hours of waiting, dancing, drinking, and talking–I watched him scribble “Hello Sexy. Neil Gaiman.”
And everything I wanted to say to him was lost and all I could whisper as my eyes watered was “Thank you, thank you so much,” like some sort of prayer. I think he said you’re welcome but can’t be sure, I was just so overcome with emotion. It just meant so much more this time.
It reminded me of the moment I watched The Doctor’s Wife for the first time and the Doctor realizes that Idris is truly his TARDIS brought to life in a beautiful, fragile human form–something that has always reminded me of Lady Amalthea in The Last Unicorn. Taking something so powerful and perfect and encapsulating it in a weaker form temporarily to save it or steal it–it’s a feeling I sometimes have.
I ran out of the auditorium, and stood under the black midnight sky, holding my book and crying like a child. The storm had passed. It was a new day.
“You get what anybody gets – you get a lifetime.”
Thank you, Neil Gaiman.