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The Cards Know Things

There’s a lot going on in my life right now. I’m sure most people can say something to this effect, but I’m really feeling it lately. To make this post sort of short and accessible, I won’t go into heavy details, but two of my friends got married last weekend; I was a part of the wedding as a bridesman. Okay, damn it, I love sharing details, so I promise I’ll post about the wedding a little later. For now, I just wanna give a quick flyover of my life.

Work is unstable. My current job is only guaranteed until November, at which point, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m not great at looking for work. Hell, to be honest, I’m in the burgeoning anti-work camp. I don’t mind labor, to build and make things that are important to me, but schlepping it for other people is a bit harder to justify … don’t get me wrong, I actually really enjoy what I’m doing right now, and I hope I can do it beyond the end of this month. Anyway, that’s my quick summary of work: things are up in the air, and my job is quite the opposite of secure.

Then there’s the social life. I mentioned my friends’ wedding. My old friend Jack Jones, whom I’ve known since 1998, married my new friend Alyssa, who’s known Jack since they had a spectacular first date and bonded over metal music, Lord of the Rings, and all the nerdy things that have shaped Jack’s life over the years. It’s like they’re made for each other, and their bond is fantastic. I was blessed with the privilege of standing on Alyssa’s side of the aisle as a bridesman, to help round out each side (the couple moved to Reno, which brought Jack back home and thrust Alyssa into a new place … so Jack has a lot more family and friends who are readily available to join his wedding party, but I digress, this is a parenthetical for Christ’s, I mean Chris’s sake). To summarize the wedding extravaganza, I cried a lot, I laughed a lot, and I danced my legs into Jell-O. It was a fucking lovely time, and I’m sitting here wishing it could have lasted longer, even after I spent the last few nights exhausted after the festivities and falling asleep almost as soon as I hit the pillow.

Okay, but this post isn’t supposed to cover the wedding … I’ll get to that. This post covers other, darker subjects. On top of my work life being highly unstable, there’s some holdover drama from some decisions I made … I suffered some pretty severe burnout over the last half a year or so. It was a struggle to even turn on my work laptop most days. I actually stepped back from doing any work for a few weeks. I don’t think I kept an accurate record of time, to be honest.

What I do know is that, I spent a whole week of my work absence diving into a video game. As in, I spent a disgusting amount of time playing that game. For a whole week – seven days in a row. I spent a whole week binging the game, then I purged it from my system. I played it less and less over the next two weeks, until I stopped playing it completely. I know how it sounds … I’m pretty sure I’m addicted to video games, or at the very least, I go through addictive phases. Binging and purging is a cycle followed by folks who are not very healthy, emotionally or mentally. I was binging and purging video games. I have been for a long while.

I mention this episode, in brief, because I fear that I upset some people who are using it against me now. And, well, they’re not in the wrong … I made life hard for most of my colleagues when I just stopped showing up to work. They suffered, a lot, because of my cowardice. And yes, that weeklong binge didn’t help me come back to the fold … but it’s not like I spent the whole summer binging games. It was one week. One extreme week. I like to believe that my gaming habits are more leveled out now.

But, the thought that people may be leveraging that extreme week against me is a frightening thought. So yesterday, October 4th (a Monday), I decided to take a day to recuperate from the stress and the anxiety and the sheer joy of the big wedding weekend. I wanted to ignore the shit mounting against me. But I also wanted to get more in tune with my spiritual side. So I picked up my deck of Tarot cards and asked “What can I expect today?”

I shuffled and drew the top card: The Tower, upright. Oh fuck.

The Tower signifies violent change, not always harmful, but a big paradigm shift; at the time, I just thought “Oh, maybe it’s just all these different stressors combining to push me a certain way. Change and all, right?” I was so wrong.

I checked the bottom of the deck, because some people believe that the bottommost card reveals another aspect of your answer, sometimes your mental or emotional state, or a deeper level of understanding – it all depends on the question and the answer.

The bottommost card was another significant and moody card: the Five of Cups, reversed. Typically, the Five of Cups represents regret, disappointment, and failure. Pretty spot-on, considering all the shit I’d been going through as far as careers, finances, and dreams were concerned … I’d messed up, and I continued to mess up. But wait, the Five of Cups was reversed … so I consulted the guidebook that came with my deck, and got these buzzwords: news, alliances, affinity, ancestry, return, false projects. Huh, okay. I wasn’t sure what to make of it all, but I had some errands to run. I stopped by the bank, then headed to Jack and Alyssa’s house: they left for Hawaii on their honeymoon, and I was watching their cats and plants while they were gone.

I got to their house and took my sweet time. I checked on the kitties, gave them some good scritches, and made myself a cup of coffee. Then, in the relative peace of their dining room, I pulled out my journal and my pen to write down my thoughts and feelings regarding the last four or five days. I found myself laughing while I relived all the great moments from the night before the wedding, the day of the wedding itself, all the smiling and crying and dancing, and the joy that came from such a great group of friends … then my phone rang.

I don’t like it when my phone rings. I don’t like talking on the phone unless I really know the other person. This caller was my aunt. From my dad’s side of the family. She had never called me before. We’d texted a little bit a few years ago, but that was it. I hadn’t seen my dad since I was nine years old.

I knew why she was calling.

I ignored the phone call and continued recording the joys of the recent past, hiding my current and near-future sadnesses in the pages of my journal. I took refuge in the smiles, and laughs, and dances of the weekend. I felt my phone vibrate about an hour later, and saw a text from my aunt. It just read “Call me when you get a chance.” I continued writing.

When I finally finished jotting down my impressions of the wedding festivities, I packed my shit, said farewell to the kitties, and drove to buy gas. My car was running dangerously low on fuel, and I needed to go to Jack and Alyssa’s place every other day to take care of things. I also needed to head to work at some point, if I even had a job still. I was also fucking hungry, so I pulled into a Del Taco drive-thru and ordered some eats.

When I pulled into the driveway at home, I saw that all our lights were on in the living room and kitchen. When I opened the front door, I heard my brother’s voice. It was strained, and he was talking on the phone. I knew he was talking to my aunt.

I knew why she was calling.

When my brother said ‘bye to my aunt and hung up, what I said was “It’s Dad, isn’t it?” In my brain what I said was “Dad’s dead, isn’t he?” Alex responded “Well, Dad’s dead.” He proceeded to explain how Dad had stopped taking medication to protect his heart, and, whether it was intentional or not, his heart gave out. He slumped forward in his seat at his apartment and died. His roommate was in the room with him. I can’t even imagine how fucking traumatic that is.

Right now, I’m not exactly speaking with my siblings. I made some comments last night that upset my brother, and my poor sister was sort of in the middle, and this is what I know: I’m sad about this, and I’m sad for me, and I’m sad for what we’ve lost, and I’m sad for my relatives, and I’m sad that I’m never brave enough to answer the phone, even when I know why the other person is calling.

I want to attend the funeral and pay my respects to my dad, despite having not seen him since I was nine years old. He was a human being, he was struggling, and he did the best he could with what little he had. We’re all in the middle of figuring out what happens next – when the funeral happens, how we all get there, how long we’ll be away. I’ll have to ask our roommate to take care of our cat. There’s a lot that’s up in the air.

But there’s one thing I know now: my Tarot cards know things that are happening, and things that are coming. The Tower, and the reversed Five of Cups, they have everything to do with the death of my dad, and the changes I and my family will undergo because of it, and the eventual moving on that we’ll all do in our own ways. Those cards told me what to expect, and I didn’t know how spot-on they were.

This is why I believe there are powers and forces beyond my sight and comprehension. There’s stuff out there that I don’t understand. I embrace it and try my best to learn about it.

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Thank You, Kentaro Miura

In this world, fate will weave the threads of causality into an unavoidable tether. We are tied to people, places, and events, though we may not see things this way. We may tell ourselves that it was always us, and our choices, that we made the decisions that led to our current circumstances. Usually I’m a proponent of free will, but sometimes, the actuation of fate seems strong enough to be real.

Two weeks ago, I was up late as always, wandering through YouTube’s suggested videos and wondering when I’d finally accept that I’ve been depressed and should probably just go to bed. A more consistent circadian rhythm would probably do wonders for me, but I resist consistency with all my being – it’s my way of fooling myself into believing I’m a “creative type,” as though all artists are recklessly unpredictable and unhealthy. That was a strong sarcastic statement, but I think I should spell it out ’cause tone doesn’t always transfer through the written word. Anyway …

I was up late, on YouTube, watching one of VaatiVidya’s ruminations on the Soulsborne series of video games. At some point, a song sprinkled with soft piano and haunting vocals played, and I had a nostalgic flashback – but to what, I couldn’t remember. I just knew I’d heard the song before, and it hit me in just the right way. I looked at the list of featured songs that accompanied the video, listened to each of the original songs that it might be, and couldn’t find it. How strange, I thought to myself at the time. I know this song, it was definitely featured in the video, and yet the list yielded nothing – at least, it didn’t bring me to the song I wanted. I quit my search and went to bed at last.

Last week, I returned home from my weekly Pathfinder 2E session on an uncharacteristic Wednesday night (we usually play on Tuesday but I pushed us back a day), a little earlier than I usually do. I walked past my brother, who was sitting on the living room couch and playing Monster Hunter Rise before he went to bed. Our friend and roommate was down there too. He asked me how the session went, I gave a quick “It was good” or something similar, and headed up the stairs to my room. Habits cling fast – I turned on my computer and hopped onto Reddit. That’s when I saw it – a post stating that Kentaro Miura, the creator of Berserk, had died about two weeks prior.

I furrowed my brow. I grimaced. I felt a quick pain, then walked to the stairs and said “Guys, Kentaro Miura died.” A quick “Who?” followed by my “The author of Berserk.” “Oh shit.” Right? My brother, our roommate, and I are all relatively geeky, in our own ways. My brother still has a fairly sizable manga collection, and I’ve watched a handful of anime heavy hitters. But it had been a while since we experienced Berserk, and I had never read the manga.

I can’t precisely say when I first saw Berserk, but it was probably around ten years ago. My brother’s girlfriend at the time was his high school sweetheart, and they both enjoyed reading manga and watching anime together. I walked into the room while they were watching an intensely violent show – a band of mercenaries was cutting foes asunder, often literally, and the protagonist used his ridiculously large sword to cleave fools in twain. I think I saw a battle, then the political aftermath of that battle, and I just sat down and kept watching it. I was hooked. I didn’t need to start at the very beginning to understand that this man, Guts, loved to fight, and beneath his rough demeanor beat a heart of gold. He cared about his friends and comrades. He fought because he enjoyed it, yes, but he also fought to protect the people he cared about. The Band of the Hawk … ah hell.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but I got to the end of that anime and I was devastated. I didn’t go so far as to read the manga and become a full-fledged fan, but I kept the solitary season of the 1997 show in my back pocket for times I’d want to sound cool. A stupid and shallow thing, when I think about it, but hey – I wasn’t gonna gatekeep myself. I watched the show and I enjoyed it.

Throughout the decade or so since then, Berserk’s influence has reached many of the things I enjoy. Hidetaka Miyazaki, the brilliant man who created what many gamers call the “Soulsborne” series, refers to Berserk with a nigh-religious fervor. Enemies, locations, characters, weapons, armor sets, all these things and more: if they’re in Dark Souls or one of its spiritual successors, there’s a high chance they’re inspired by Berserk. Nearly every D&D campaign I’ve experienced has featured someone asking “Oh, is your character like Guts?” All of us nerds know of Berserk, even if we don’t study it or devote ourselves to it.

I often tell people that my love for horror and philosophical questions stems from Castlevania. I played Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow when I was a teenager, and it led me to all the things I love: vampires, demons, monsters and monster slayers, fancy weapons … I’m sure that The Legend of Zelda is frowning right now ’cause I definitely played Ocarina of Time before Aria of Sorrow, but the fact remains that the Castlevania series is the first I experienced that explicitly addressed demons, their ilk, and their legendary enemies – the heroic Belmont clan!

I’ve gone way off topic, but the previous paragraph is there to lend credence to the following assertion: if I’d known what Berserk was when I was a teenager, I would have eaten it up.

Would I have been able to digest its more mature themes of purpose, self-determination, and perseverance? Shit, would I have been able to handle its mature content? Maybe not. It’s possible I rediscovered Berserk at just the right time. But we’ll get to that, I promise.

Over the years, my brother and I moved out of our parents’ house to live together. Jobs, careers, and relationships have changed drastically, but we’ve struggled onward together. A few years ago, my brother approached me with a shirt. “Do you want this?,” he asked before explaining, “It doesn’t fit me anymore.” I took it and held it out to get a good look at it. It was a red Berserk t-shirt, with images from what I now know is The Golden Age arc. The arc I saw in the anime. Part of me didn’t think I deserved to wear the t-shirt, since I hadn’t read the manga, but I didn’t wanna look this gift horse in the mouth. I accepted the shirt.

I wear the shirt, but sometimes I forget the details that come along with it. Before meeting with friends one weekend, I wore the t-shirt into a liquor store. The clerk said “I like your shirt, man. Is that Golden Age arc?” I replied in the affirmative before adding that I still hadn’t read the manga. “It’s online, dude. Check out [insert name of website that I forgot after we left the store].”

I said thanks for the tip as well as the service, left, and promptly forgot all about the exchange until recently. Being a Castlevania fan, I eagerly awaited the release of the Netflix adaptation’s fourth and “final” season (quotation marks around final because the creators say they’d like to continue the show, but with a different group of characters – works for Castlevania!). When the new season released, people kept saying “Yo, that one fight scene – that’s totally Berserker armor!” Uh, what? I watched the scene and thought “Oh, yeah, her armor and her stance are totally reminiscent of Artorias.” If you’ve played Dark Souls, you know that Artorias is a notoriously awesome boss in the DLC, and if you’ve read Berserk, you know that Artorias is directly inspired by the Berserker armor from the manga.

Yeah, I’ve played Dark Souls but I hadn’t read the Berserk manga. I knew one link in the chain of inspiration for that badass armor, but I didn’t have the full story. Not yet.

Let’s run through the chain of events as I remember them, to get the causality right. First, I play Ocarina of Time as a child (as well as read Redwall), which gets me enjoying fantasy. I later play Castlevania as a teenager, sparking a love of horror and stories with darker themes. Some years later, while I’m still slogging (struggling?!) through college, I watch the second half of the Berserk anime. I feel great sadness, and I avoid the manga. My brother hands me his old Berserk t-shirt, which later prompts a friendly cashier to tell me “You can read the manga online.” Dark Souls happens somewhere in the midst of this chain, and I notice Berserk references more and more. Enough to make the connection to the Castlevania show.

Then, last week, I learn that the creator of Berserk died recently. Kentaro Miura’s name is now etched into my memory, and I read Reddit threads praising the man for his beautiful work. A few commenters state that Berserk changed the way they live their lives, and taught them valuable lessons.

Oh shit. This is my favorite kind of story. This is why I love literature and stories and writing in general – words, and stories in particular, have the power to save us from the ever-encroaching darkness of real life. They can lift us out of despair, and steer our feet back to the paths of righteousness and goodness. If Berserk had such a profound effect on people, and I love powerful stories, then I must read it.

So I finally did what that liquor store clerk suggested – I read Berserk online. Over the course of about five days, I crammed Berserk into my aching eyes. I scrolled over page upon page of beautiful ink drawings – line work that turned illustrations into paintings of sublime skill, character traits shining through simple gestures and expressions, beliefs and convictions poured into sword swings and knife throws and spell setups. I stayed awake until the wee hours of the morning, the sun rising outside my window, and I absorbed every. Beautiful. Page.

I essentially crammed thirty-two years’ of work into my brain and heart in a little less than a week. I knew a few of the important plot points thanks to the internet and my curiosity, and I was still touched. No, I was moved. I cried. I cried numerous times throughout the harrowing journey. Lots of sad tears, and some happy tears. Once I caught up with the current state of things, I read more accounts of readers’ Berserk experiences. I read the statements issued by Kentaro Miura’s colleagues and publishers. I cried more.

I have to support this man, and his creation. His art. I looked for copies of the manga – paper copies! – to no avail. Even my usual online retailers didn’t have copies in stock. Eventually I came to my senses and just did a Google search, which led me to a place where I could order one of the beautiful deluxe editions of Berserk. I’m buying them one at a time this time, slowly, with the intent to read the story deliberately – so I may savor each page.

After I ordered my first real copy of Berserk, I went to YouTube to wander through videos again. Maybe take my mind off the weight of the loss we’ve all suffered. But a lot of the content I consume is tied to video games. The Soulsborne stuff, in particular. And we’ve all been hit hard. So naturally, one of the first videos on my feed is by the magnificent Zullie the Witch. It’s a tribute to Kentaro Miura, highlighting many of the connections tying the Soulsborne games to Berserk. In the video, a song plays: soft, persistent piano accompanied by haunting vocals.

It’s that song. The one that filled me with nostalgia without giving me a name. But Zullie, bless them, gave me the song’s name.

Gatsu, or Guts’ Theme, by Susumu Hirasawa. From the 1997 Berserk anime.

I know that I chose to watch the videos that brought the song back into my life. I acknowledge that I’ve made a lot of choices that have led me to where I sit right now, listening to Guts’ Theme on repeat and writing about my experiences with Berserk. It all looks and feels like fate, but I think it’s more than that.

It’s the power of an artistic vision that understands struggle, consequence, and choice. Kentaro Miura filled Berserk with overwhelming troubles, then breathed life and spirit into people who could make the choice to face those troubles – or ignore them. Guts and his comrades could give up in the face of the overwhelming forces that deter them, but they struggle on. Their trials and their growth endear them to us, and we love and root for them. Their powerful stories, brought to life in beautiful detail by Kentaro Miura, bolster us in dark days and remind us that we too may fight the forces that threaten to destroy us – and learn, and fail, and grow in the process.

I could chalk up my string of Berserk experiences to fate, but I want to give Kentaro Miura more credit than that. Berserk is a work of art, and Miura-san is an artist. The sheer popularity of Berserk ensured that it would keep coming back to me, until I embraced it and loved it as it deserves.

I love Berserk. Thank you, Kentaro Miura, and may you rest in the dimension that follows life.

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