On the way to meet a friend for breakfast, there was this special moment. It came upon me like a wave of meaning … like some sort of wind of poetic clarity. You know the type?
I was still coming down from the high of the Battle for Winterfell in that masterpiece of an episode of Game of Thrones this season. I don’t know about anyone else, but I found myself wanting more of Iwan Rheon, knowing Ramsay’s bones were chew toys. After discovering Rheon’s never-ending talent continued in singing and songwriting, I bought his album, Dinard, and put the songs on my iPhone to play in the car.
So here I am, driving a car down the street in Chicago in June of 2016, past bus stops and computer repair shops and underneath stoplights and airplane routes. On the passenger seat next to me sat my notes for a therapy appointment later that day, within a notebook covered with a glued-on picture of a wolf. I glanced over at it, and then noticed my shirt, emblazoned with a wolf, as well. In came the wind … (I want to call it the winds of winter, but I don’t want to let on that I’m as big of a nerd as I am.)
Suddenly, it occurred to me that it was all real. In a weird alternate-reality kind of way, I was Sansa Stark in that moment. This month marks huge progress in my recovery from an abusive relationship (he was no Ramsay Bolton, but he had a crybaby Joffrey vibe to him). Sansa’s character arc means a lot to me: “My skin has turned to porcelain, to ivory, to steel” (A Storm of Swords). In general, characters mean a lot to me. Stories are my world. I exist in my own life and through my favorite stories, whether they be in books, on screen, on stage, in songs, in myths, or from real written accounts of those that lived under the same skies as us.
When I first graduated and figured out that I had PTSD, I could lie in bed and stare at the wall for hours at a time, if I could handle the flashbacks. Among many other stories, Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire gave me the keys to the doors of my spirit and helped me to save my life. When I first read the books, I wanted to be Arya. I wanted to train with swords and learn to kill my enemies. I wanted to go to sleep each night, whispering a fatal list. I wanted to have the Stark name and wolf dreams. I told myself that Fear cuts deeper than swords to get through each day.
Soon, I started to relate to Sansa, to the way she grew, to the way she solidified from the inside out, to the way she was broken and the way she built herself anew. Now that the show is ahead of the books and on an entirely different trajectory in some storylines, I have been more interested than ever in Sansa Stark. The Battle for Winterfell was Sansa’s first triumphant moment in a long while. I, like basically everyone else who watched, reveled in her victory. We all wanted to be Sansa Stark that night … not to mention, she had the best seat for watching Ramsay’s face being torn off.
So I’m in the car with my wolf gear on, listening to the actually quite charming Iwan Rheon singing a sort of love song. And it occurs to me that stories have come full circle from the days long ago when they were spoken in circles and believed to be true, to happen among the living, to weave in and out of reality. Norse gods were said to shapeshift and make visits to villages. Heroes of old walked the very paths of ordinary people. Children were not to go into the woods alone, for fear of monsters that imagination could not hold back. And in 2016, an episode airs and ends, and every ounce of its making is pieced apart and discussed in virtual circles, around virtual campfires, by people all under the same skies. For days, we relive the story in gif sets that haunt our feelings; we attach quotations, from the same moment or even from moments early on in the story, connecting words that weave a bigger picture. Jon Snow pulls out his sword and stands to fight the cavalry, and it reads, Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid? / That is the only time a man can be brave. Another photo of the same scene has ironic labels on the charging cavalry: responsibilities, bills, relationship drama … and while it’s good for a laugh, it’s also true that somewhere, probably many places, someone puts on a brave face, because Jon Snow did. I know I have.
So I’m in the car surrounded by the wolf sigil, enveloped in the sound of a voice I know to be part of this story, but also entirely his own, belonging to someone who lives in this very world … and suddenly, for a brief moment, it is like I have shapeshifted, like I have become my own version of the story, like my very own slice of a remake. I suppose this is a longwinded way of saying I felt the story come alive within the confines of my ordinary existence. As a bookworm and TV/movie nerd, my dream has always been to fall through the pages of a book or through a screen into the astral worlds of creative consciousness. Since I was a child, I wanted to merge my own being with my favorite characters, to live with the integrity that makes a fictional character’s story have value, the way it is worthy because it is absorbed by watchers and readers, the way it is real and full of meaning because it is, in a way, bottled like a scent, instead of dispersed like air throughout the void that is the ever-present life we live.
It’s not to say that “real life” is not worth living, but that story adds a layer of depth to life that we cannot get any other way. Story is the salt of everyday life. Characters are highly concentrated versions of us, and we are profound compilations of archetypal characters. In that moment, in the car, Sansa Stark and the Stark quintessence shined through my earthly vessel and made me more than myself, and at the same time, perfectly enough. Tuning into stories is possibly one of the oldest soulful acts there ever was, and still, in the twenty-first century, it is timelessly vitalizing and precious. In today’s media-rich reality, stories may have taken on an additional layer of meaning in our lives. Or, perhaps, they have settled within us in such a way that we truly do live among them and they among us. We have turned to fable, to legend, to life.