Book of Spells

On Tuesday I attended (virtually, of course) a really neat talk on “recipe books.” For hundreds of years these were books kept by people, most of them women, to collect not only their cooking recipes but also instructions on making poultices, ointments, and other concoctions to cure and heal illness and injury. The talk was given by Chrissie Perella, the Historical Medical Library Archivist at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which has 40 recipe books in its collection. Some of the recipes Perella talked about were entertainingly odd, including the “Oil of Swallows” included in Gervase Markham’s The English House-vvife (1615), which called for the use of up to 20 live swallows. !!!

I love old books, especially handwritten ones like these. They have more than a little of the witch’s grimoire about them, especially the older ones, which blended magic with science and sometimes included rituals that were meant to be performed as the concoction was being made or used.

It’s easy for me to feel a visceral connection to these women who lived 150 or 400 years ago, a feeling that sparks when I look at the book itself and see the annotations they made to their own recipes over the months and years, just as I do in my own notebooks. Perella explained that one of the ways scholars can know whether a recipe was actually used is that the writers of these books frequently made note of who they got the recipe from. When one woman’s name appears several times in another’s recipe book, we know they were likely friends who lived near each other. The books were sometimes kept and added to by more than one person, over generations. It’s such a human thing, a book like this.

All of this put me to mind of the book I’ve been working on since last year, The Kytchyn Witche Guide to Natural Living. My friend Nadine and I have spent months compiling our favorite household cleaning and body care recipes, including tips and ideas from people in our communities, from herbalists we’ve met to our own mothers. Our book, like those old ones, is witchy in a few ways: We talk about ritual and visualization techniques, and the whole thing is about honoring nature in all areas of life. We even encourage readers to start a grimoire of their own recipes and notations.

But most important, in my eyes, the book connects the reader back through the centuries to all the dedicated keepers of home and hearth.

The Oil of Swallows recipe as seen in “Anne Layfielde, her Booke of Physicke and Surgery, 1640”

Getting Real

I had to admit it: I was never going to read all the issues of the London Review of Books that were sitting in two tall stacks on my office floor. They’d been there for months, and some of the covers had started curling up with age. I went through and clipped only the essays and reviews that interested me the most, and for the last couple of weeks I’ve been making my way through that stack—also a large one—quite happily. I thought I’d share a few of the gems with you here.

  • I read “I’m an Intelligence,” a long-form review by Joanna Biggs of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. I: 1940-56 and The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. II: 1956-63, edited by Peter Steinberg and Karen Kukil. The essay looks at the last years of Plath’s life (and briefly and poignantly but amusingly imagines what her life might have looked like, had it lasted a lot longer). Because of this, it is largely about Plath’s relationship with her dreadful husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and her own mental health and sense of self. It’s also about the varying ways we portray ourselves (or hide ourselves) in communications with other people. ‘Ted may be a genius,’ Plath wrote to her mother just a few months before her death, ‘but I’m an intelligence.’
  • I read art historian Eleanor Nairne’s short essay about Keith Haring, published last year on the occasion of the first large-scale exhibition of his work in the UK. Haring is an artist I have a lot of affection for and, along with the many other New York street artists of his era, a real fascination with. In Nairne’s piece I learned about an aspect of his graffiti art that I didn’t know: In New York in the early 80s, when a subway ad was taken down it was temporary replaced with black paper, and Haring used these as canvases for his chalk drawings. He made 5,000 of them between 1980 and 1985 and was arrested several times for doing it. 
Tseng Kwong Chi photo of Keith Haring
  • I read an essay by LRB editor Andrew O’Hagan’s—an installment of the paper’s Diary (usually my favorite section)—which I clipped because the first sentence was about the poet Philip Larkin. It ended up being not about Larkin’s poetry but his funeral, as well as the funerals of a few other poets and O’Hagan’s own father. “When I read it now, I see his order of service was a publication chiefly for people who hardly knew him, and when all’s said and done, that’s fine, isn’t it, even appropriate, if what mattered to the person in question was cultivating the admiration of strangers? A lie can confirm a truth.”
  • I’ve read two pieces about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. One was a dense, poetic little piece about the changing face of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic during the 60s and 70s by the poet Padraig Rooney. The other was a chilly account of the Birmingham Six, the six Irishmen who were wrongly convicted for two 1974 bombings that killed 21 people and seriously injured 170 or more, by Chris Mulilin, the journalist who wrote a book that helped prove their innocence (though not until many years after they were imprisoned). The people who committed the crimes have never been brought to justice, though Mullins knows who they are. He writes that the purpose of his reporting was to prove the innocence of the Six, and “Journalists do not disclose their sources.” A reporter’s account of his own reporting makes for fascinating reading. As I read his essay I remembered the powerful film In the Name of the Father (and its impeccable soundtrack), then looked up the movie and remembered that it was actually about a different case, the Guildford Four, in which another group of young Irishmen were falsely accused of a different bombing in England. Like the Birmingham Six, those men spent some 15 years in prison before their innocence was proven and they were released. 
  • In Barbara Newman’s review of a Jack Hartnell history book, I read about “medieval bodies.” Newman reports on extremes of feasting and fasting; exaggerated depictions of whiteness and blackness; laws governing what people wore for the purpose of identifying them by their profession or social status (“French prostitutes could not wear embroidery, pearls, gilt buttons, or robes trimmed with squirrel fur”); Pope Joan, the 9th-century lady who cross-dressed and fooled everyone into letting her become pontiff until she got pregnant and either died giving birth or was murdered (modern scholars think that most likely none of this actually happened); women who shaved their eyebrows and wore cone-shaped hats during a period in the 15th century when having a broad forehead was considered very beautiful; and the idea that witches could cast a spell to make a man’s penis disappear. Bodies: They’re weird! 

  • I read an unusual meditation on the idea of “the beach” by Inigo Thomas. He first discusses the meaning of the word “pebble”—its etymology is obscure, but he writes that “Pebbles begin as a fragment of rick that through natural agency has broken away from the rockface” and quotes Clarence Ellis’ book The Pebbles: “The weather, very slowly, but very surely, breaks down even the hardest rock.” Later, he evokes Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, which was made from two thousand square meters of black Doria marble from Genoa and thirty thousand Moorish tiles purchased from an American collector, among other materials. Very grand indeed, but Thomas reminds us, “There’s no argument about rising sea levels, only their causes. … eventually Mar-a-Lago too will be worn down by the actions of the waves. A house on the shore is no less transient that a pebble on the beach.”
  • I read Madeleine Schwartz’s review of two books by Kathleen Collins that were prepared for publication posthumously by her daughter Nina some thirty years after they were written. Collins, a Black writer who worked in the 70s and 80s, wrote stories, plays, and films, though many of them did not see the light of day during her lifetime. Collins wrote stories that showed, in her words, “African Americans as human subjects and not as mere race subjects.” Schwartz writes that, though Collins’ characters tend not to be overtly political themselves, the title story of her book Whatever Happened to Interracial Love looks at “the pressure and lies created by racism.” When her only film, Losing Ground, was made in 1982, it couldn’t get distribution in arthouse movie theaters “because they couldn’t imagine who would want to watch it,” Schwartz writes. She refers to an essay on the film by Phyllis Rauch Klotman, who writes that “audiences complained that the movie had no ghettos, ‘no ‘poor suffering black folk.’ ” But Schwartz reminds us that the Collins stories that were released just a few years ago were received with a similar bemusement; critics seemed unsure of what to make of these “stories of black love and conversation” that don’t fit easily into the walled-off categories of our understanding of art or race.
American writer and filmmaker Kathleen Collins

Maybe don’t

(Major content warning on this one, friends: r*pe, murder, misogyny, stalking, serial killers)

Jenny Diski was lots of people’s favorite writer. She published many books of fiction and memoir during her lifetime, though I haven’t read most of them—I only knew her from the essays she wrote for the London Review of Books, where she was a frequent contributor. After she died a few years ago I bought a copy of Don’t, a collection of book reviews and personal essays she wrote for the magazine, and I spent some time today re-reading it. 

One of the first pieces in the book, in a section titled “Looking at Monsters in the Dark,” is a review of a lurid-sounding book called The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer, which came out in 1993, a year before Dahmer died in prison. I was a young teenager when Dahmer was caught and his crimes were revealed. I remember being horrified by him, but at the same time somehow comforted by the knowledge he had preyed on boys and men, which was new information to me, a surprise. I filed the information away: Men harm other men, too. It’s not just women and girls who are in danger. It is always the men doing the harming, though, it seemed. That part was not a surprise. 

When I saw this essay in Diski’s book I had the same reaction to it that I always do to articles or films about serial rapists and murders: I don’t want to read it. I can’t look at it. / I have to look at it. I have to read it, every word. Typically, after I read or watch the thing, I will get sick to my stomach or have at least one very bad night’s sleep, but I continue to do it occasionally anyway. Am I interested in these subjects, or am I punishing myself for something? Am I trying to keep myself safe, or to understand something about human nature? Or about myself? Or is all of those at once?

So I read the Dahmer essay, along with the rest of the book. I deeply enjoyed the essays. This is writing about many areas of life—reportage of a kind—by someone with a truly interesting mind, as well as a wonderful sense of humor. Diski looked at Dahmer the way she looked at the book written about him, and about subject she addresses: Not only does she not look away, as I was tempted to do, she looks inward as well. She does not shy away from the horrible things that happen in the world or from her own dark thoughts, and by letting all these exist together on the page she makes room for the, shall we say, fullness of the human experience. Even still, by the end of her essay she admits that she might not see much need for books about people like Dahmer, agreeing with something he once said about himself: “This is the grand finale of a life poorly spent … How it can help anyone, I’ve no idea.” 

But old Jeffrey Dahmer has a way of popping up again and again, doesn’t he? All these guys do, these serial killers everyone is so fascinated with, along with all the other kinds of violent crimes that are splayed all over the news. They won’t go away and so occasionally, I guess, we feel compelled to take a look. 

When I was in my 20s and working at a Barnes & Noble, a sweet but possibly creepy guy I worked with there asked me to get the book he’d ordered from behind the register, and when I saw that it was a biography of Jeffrey Dahmer I felt truly skeeved, I can’t lie. As I handed it to him I gave him a look that said Why?, trying to cover my discomfort by teasing him. He just looked embarrassed, and I remained afraid of him until I quit the job a few months later.

But then, I was a young woman, and I was afraid a lot of the time. Even specifically at that job: There were a few men who would pester the young women who worked at the store, asking for us by name even though they were strangers to us. One man in particular came in looking for me after we’d spoken on the phone when he called to ask about a book. He then stood there in front of my register (and a bunch of other people) and told me what a “soothing” voice I’d had over the phone, gazing at me with a truly demented expression in his eyes. I often worked the store’s evening shift, which meant I had to stay until it closed at 11, help do all the closing-up stuff, then leave to walk out into the dark, empty parking lot at midnight and walk home alone. The whole time I worked there I nursed a low-level fear that the soothing voice guy would be there waiting for me, and yet this feeling was indistinguishable from the at-least-low-level fear of all men that I carried around with me all the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever even considered that particular anecdote important enough to tell anyone about before now, though I’ve thought of it often over the years.

A few years before I had that bookstore job, I was in college and living in downtown Philadelphia, when the so-called Center City Rapist was at large. He lived, it turned out, in an apartment just a few blocks from the one I shared with my best friend K. Several times over the course of a few years, he slipped out of the bed he shared with his girlfriend in the middle of the night to break into women’s apartments while they slept and rape them. He murdered one of them, a woman named Shannon who lived a few blocks from where I lived at the time. (All of these crimes were committed within a few blocks of where I lived.) She was 23, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania while I was an undergraduate there; I was 21. The Philadelphia Police Department’s habit of underplaying, ignoring, and mishandling crimes of sex crimes has since been reported on widely, though at that time my friends and I did not know this, and didn’t need to know it to realize we were deeply unsafe. We already had the much larger knowledge that most women have always had—that we were on our own with this stuff.

Actually, I once read a book about Jeffrey Dahmer myself. At the library one quiet afternoon, looking for something good to read, I found a graphic memoir by a man who’d gone to school with “Jeff.” He wrote about Dahmer’s crimes as well as his memories of him as a teenager, and how those did, or did not, line up with what later happened. It’s a very sensitive and powerful book—it was later made into a film, which I haven’t seen—but it scared me so badly that I regretted reading it with the same intense energy one usually feels for regretting having done something, not simply having read or looked at something. If only I could take it back! Some things, once you’ve seen or heard them, do not go away.

I want to say here that the current wave of fascination with murder, which as far as I can tell has been spurred on if not created by podcasts and the Netflix’s serial killer documentary machine, leaves me very cold. I don’t find the “fandom” of well-known murders funny, and I don’t think being preoccupied with stuff like this makes a person interesting. I wish it would all go away. The violence, and the glamorization of the violence. Just make it stop. A line from one of my all-time favorite shows, Six Feet Under, comes to me now. When his coworker starts describing the M.O. of a serial killer they’ve agreed to embalm after he was executed by the state, the undertaker David nearly shouts: “Don’t tell me. It’s bad enough things like that happen. Do we have to talk about them too?”

But—I think sometimes sometimes we have to talk about them. Last year, during a period when I was feeling extremely disturbed after learning about an act of sexual violence that had happened to someone I love, I watched Conversations With a Killer, a four-part, nearly four-hour documentary Netflix produced about Ted Bundy and the journalists who managed the rare feat of interviewing him while he was on death row. I was hungry for this story, and not in my usual, guiltily self-harming way. It felt important for me to try to understand the reason a person might hurt someone for pleasure. I have to conclude that a hunger for understanding is the reason people write books like the one I read, and the one Diski reviewed, though I can’t say that in the case of this documentary I really gained much wisdom beyond an astonished sort of appreciation for the depths that people can sink to. 

(And yes, like it or not, these are people, not monsters. There’s no such thing as monsters, I’m afraid. In a song on Tori Amos’s album American Doll Posse—one of the funny, spooky little ditties she does so well—she sings: “Devils and gods, now that’s an idea / but if we believe that its they who decide / that’s the ultimate detractor of crimes / cuz devils and gods, they are you and I.”) 

One of the details from the Bundy film that haunts me the most, a year after watching it, is something one of the journalists said, something about regret. He was a tough old-school newspaper reporter and didn’t seem the type to be scared by much, but he talked about how thoroughly disturbed he was by Bundy, how he felt that by spending time with him he’d been infected by his essence. He described bringing home with him a darkness that has gnawed at him more, not less, as time has worn on, and he said he wished he’d never done the interviews at all. 

Touching from a Distance

(Other titles I considered for this post: “Closedown”, “Haunted When the Minutes Drag,” and “Shake the Disease”)

Well, it’s official. We’ll never have fun again.

The city of Philadelphia announced last week that gatherings of more than 50 people are cancelled until February 28, 2021. That means no club nights, no dance parties for another six months at least. I think this is honestly the only approach to the pandemic that makes any sense, and I’m proud to live in a place where the leadership has responded to it (mostly) appropriately. And I know it was unlikely that I’d feel safe going to parties even if the city started allowing them before then anyway. But wow, did it feel bad to hear this.

One of the best things Joe and I do together is go out to one of our “goth nights” and dance till our thigh muscles are twitching with exhaustion. Putting together the perfect outfit is, for me, just as much fun, and just as important, as the music we dance to. Goth and its various offshoots, interpretations, and related genres (industrial pop, darkwave, synth pop, post punk) are pretty theatrical subcultures, and participation in them is a kind of performance. You dress up like you belong, then go to the places where the people who matter will see that you look like one of them, that you are one of them. Getting it right is a rush. 

It’s already been four months and I miss this, badly. All of it: The cheesy drinks, since I’m too old to give a shit who’s gonna think my Red Bull cocktails are tacky. The music, of course, that feeling when a song you love comes on at top volume. Why is it so much more exciting when the DJ surprises you with a song than when you put it on yourself at home? (It’s the surprise, I guess. But it’s the community of it, too—everyone gets up and stomps to I’ve! Got to Say! That it hurts! When your favorite songs are everybody else’s favorite songs, that’s when you know you’re home.)

That sense of belonging is what I miss the most, I think, the moment when I step through the door and the thudding bass takes up residence in my chest, giddily disoriented while my eyes adjust to the lighting, and the gang’s all here—hair tattoos jackets boots god they’re gorgeous. Joe and I don’t usually feel the need to talk to anyone; just being there and feeling accepted is enough (though we’ll get a little thrill when another regular gives us the smile-nod, or someone checks one of us out in the bathroom). At some point, later in the evening, we’ll need a break from the heat of the club so we’ll go out and sit on the fire escape near the back door and eavesdrop on the smokers’ conversations as we shout to hear each other, ears ringing. Never happier. I am never happier than when I’m doing this.

Given that this is such a participatory culture, I’ve been interested to see that my love for it hasn’t been dampened one bit during the months that I’ve been unable to perform it for an audience. Not even in day-to-day life, like on the bus, when I let everybody take in my outfit as I walk down the aisle, VNV Nation pounding in my ears. No, I’ve been at home all the fucking time, just like the rest of you—but I’ve got my books. And that was actually the point of this post, to tell you about my goth books.

Shall we take a look at them?


Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Lace, by Andi Harriman and Marloes Bontje

Oh how I love these pictures. I could write a whole essay that’s just about the feeling of fantasizing over old photos, and another one about my fascination with “scenes” that happened before I was old enough to participate in them. There’s something else there too, something about images of youth frozen in time forever, which always turns me on and tortures me in equal measure.

The editors have strung together a really nice history of the early days of goth in collected vintage photos, research, and short essays about the history of goth culture, not just in the U.S. and the U.K. but around the world, including parts of the eastern bloc. This is a gorgeous, hefty book that I do indeed keep on my coffee table, and I’ve gotten halfway decent at making my hair look like the person’s on the cover even if I never was and never will be as beautiful as that human.

I also find myself interested in editor Andi Harriman, in part because she’s young but has such a deep knowledge of the history of goth. I’ve only seen her in photos but there’s a simplicity to her personal style that makes her seem timeless and placeless, like she could have stepped out of one of the photos in her book of some kids hanging around a cemetery in the Netherlands. Well done.

Goth: Undead Subculture, edited by Lauren M. E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby

I brought this big honkin’ book to jury duty last year and clutched it all day like a security blanket. It protected me from having to be friendly to anyone there even if it couldn’t protect me from hearing the details of a fucking stabbing that I might have been, but thank the lord wasn’t, chosen to sit on the jury for.

This anthology was published by Duke University Press and the essays are scholarly ones, which means there’s more jargon and footnoting than anyone needs, but I don’t mind. There are a lot of interesting ideas here—on gender and representation, style and identity—and I still haven’t gotten to all of them. In one fascinating piece, Peri Gothous writes about his time as an exotic dancer at a gay male club in the early 90s, comparing his gothy appearance and the elaborate show he created to the mainstream tanned-and-muscled gym-guy dancers who were the norm at the club and the clientele’s stated preference. His act was an act of rebellion, and even though he had a loyal following his presence wasn’t always well received: “Male goth androgyny threatened normalized homosexuality as well as heteronormativity.”

Another essay, written by Anna Powell, looks at religiosity in goth culture. She writes: “In goth contexts, secular practices such as dancing have the potential to mobilize a sense of the numinous for their participants. According to the mythographer Rudolph Otto, numinous connotes the non-rational mystery behind all religions, evoking awe and fascination.” Totally. I’ve always said it: When we’re all together in the club, dancing to the DJ or watching the band, and we feel moved by the same thing at the same time, our spirits lift and mingle; there’s something else present and suddenly we’re in a sacred space. We’re at church.

Gothic Charm School: An Essential Guide for Goths and Those Who Love Them, by Jillian Venters

I’ve been looking at Gillian’s blog for years now—she started writing her monthly advice column in 1998! A long time ago, when I only had my love of dark music and fashion but no community I could feel a part of, I had the internet, and Gillian’s Lady of the Manners essays—particularly her breakdowns of sub-subcultures within the scene—were a real education for me. I follow her on Instagram now and can’t help but feel we’ve both come into our own.

I finally got around to buying her book, and it’s just as likable as the blog and frankly rather useful. A lot of it is quite sincerely about manners, and her insistence that goths, however tender and hurt their feelings may be from a lifetime of getting teased and messed with (ahem), do not need to be snotty to each other or to people outside the culture. I like this. I always appreciated Gillian’s inclusive attitude, especially years ago, when I was lonelier in a lot of ways. It went a long way in making me feel like I might belong.

I also never get tired of hearing her weigh in on goth-adjacent fashion and cultural moments like steampunk and dark mori. If you don’t know what mori is I suggest you get on over to Pinterest and drink that deliciousness in.

“Shake the Disease” has been stuck in my head for days now. Great song, but what’s with the lyrics, actually? Is he talking about social anxiety or what?

Take Me Back

Photo by Gregoire Alessandrini, 1994

I just finished reading a real jewel of a novel called Going Down by Jennifer Belle. It was published in 1996 and well received at the time. In it, a young woman named Bennington Bloom is studying acting at NYU when she decides she wants to make a break from her unreliable parents and support herself, so she takes a job as a call girl. She’s my favorite kind of narrator—observant, no-bullshit, and very funny. When she describes sex with her clients you feel her innocence and her jadedness; it all comes through at once, which seems so real. She’s good company in bad times.

It just so happens that this week I was sorting though a box of letters and keepsakes in my office closet when I came across the NYU i.d. that was issued to me in 1997, the summer I spent living in the dorms with my best friend from high school and two of her friends. My friend was studying filmmaking and the other two were acting students at Tisch, just like Bennington. Same time, same place. In the i.d. picture, my jawline is smooth and my skin looks plump and perfect.

The New York references in Belle’s novel have been bringing up memories that are so old and dusty, I didn’t even know they were still in there. The ten million Ray’s pizza places (Ray’s Famous, Ray’s Original, Famous Original Ray’s…), the skaters almost bowling me over in Washington Square Park, drinking coffee at the Angelika. Drinking coffee at the movies instead of a soda made me feel so grown up. It still does.

In the book, Bennington’s friend says something about Lucille Ball, and I can see myself in the bathroom of our dorm room while my roommate who was a model tweezes my eyebrows and advises me never to tweeze them all the way down or shave them off, or else I’d look like an alien, like Lucille Ball did when she got older. When she finished my eyebrows and turned me around to the mirror so I could see them I started to cry because I’d thought she could make me look as beautiful as she was, but I still looked like me. I told her this and somehow it hurt her feelings.

Before I moved up to New York for the summer, I got a job at a magazine that was supposedly my whole reason for being there. But I quit it after a just few weeks, from a pay phone, because the woman I reported to was so rude and snotty. I went back home and told my roommates—I’d been on my way to the subway that morning when I realized I just couldn’t stand it anymore—and one of them told me to fax my resume to her mother at her advertising firm. Her mother was terrifying and impressive, a force of nature—it really was her firm, as in she owned the business and had an office in midtown Manhattan with 50 people working for her—and she liked my resume, and consequently me. Everyone at that job was so nice to me. I made friends with another girl there and we spent most of our time using stupid voices on the phone and making instant hot chocolate by adding only the tiniest bit of water, then eating the crunchy chocolate stew by the spoonful.

That summer was emotionally stressful and annoying in the way that living with friends in college more or less always was, but it was also magical in the way that New York pretty much always is. Our dorm building was on Union Square, right next to a beloved breakfast spot that was confusingly named The Coffee Shop Restaurant. One morning there was a grease fire in their kitchen and we were all awakened at about 6:30 by the alarms. The smoke filled our rooms. Before we ran out the door I pulled on a pair of soft purple jeans that I wore all the time back then, even in the summer, but my friends kept their pajamas and robes on. (“You’re not afraid to be private in public,” Bennington’s acting teacher says to her, approvingly.) It was only the second week of my new job, the advertising one, and I hated to be late but I had no choice since we were stuck outside for a long while waiting for the firemen to say it was safe to go back in.

The following morning I got to work on time and walked into the little kitchenette for some coffee. A few of my coworkers were standing around looking at the New York Post and smiling.

“She’s arrived!” one of them said fondly when she saw me. She showed me the paper, which had a half-page picture of me and my friends standing on the sidewalk with a big headline about the fire the morning before. There I was, in those jeans I thought were so cool, smoking a cigarette at seven in the morning, next to my best friend who was wearing her old man pajamas—button-down top and matching pants—that once were seen only in privacy of our dorm room. I remember feeling so relieved that I had proof about the fire and wasn’t just lying because I was running late. My coworker gave me her copy of the paper and I kept the clipping for years, but I don’t seem to have it anymore.

All my life I have experienced feelings of nostalgia blossoming inside my body several times a day. The feeling can be triggered by the smallest things—the smell of laundry detergent coming from someone’s house, the way the light hits my living room floor. Sometimes, often, it’s not even nostalgia for anything I can remember, but a deep pang of longing for something that’s just out of my reach—some time or place that I could get to, or way that I could feel, if only I could figure out what it was. Other languages have better words for this feeling: saudade in Portuguese, kaiho in Finnish, hireath in Welsh. It seems to be a common experience all over the world to feel a formless sort of loss over something you can only half remember.

I’ve been getting this feeling even more than usual lately. I think it has to do with the pandemic and the quarantine, the chaos surrounding it all, and people’s drastically different responses to the situation—the way these things have made me feel trapped at times, and wishing things could be different. When I feel like this, I’m sometimes guilty of wanting to climb back into the simpler times of my past, until I remember that life was never simple, never easy. It only ever seems that way because looking back, I know I survived it.

Bennington Bloom is a born-and-bred New Yorker, the real deal. Her stories of the city sparkle with the same kind of magic I found there: the small-world coincidences; the impossibly wonderful places that are only possible in New York, like the Russian Tea Room; that sort of stuff. And like every New Yorker I’ve ever met, Bennington knows who she is. She’s resilient and strong, even though her messed-up parents are a constant source of heartache and she makes mistakes and embarrasses herself left and right. Who doesn’t?

When it comes down to it, the spirit of that character might be the most nostalgic thing about the book for me. She brought back memories of a former self, the girl in the i.d. picture with an even stare and good bones, the person who quit crummy jobs and took no guff. I’m so grateful to be reminded that her spirit is alive in me, even though it’s taken a kicking over the years. That resilience is serving me well now, and it will serve me in whatever future I—we—end up being faced with.

Quarantine musings

My writing practice has always been there for me, whether I’ve needed to sort something out for myself, or tell the world something that needed telling, or just to keep myself company. It’s always been a place I could go. But in the terrifying early days of the pandemic I couldn’t write. Didn’t even know what I’d write about, since the things I’d been working on before seemed irrelevant and the thing that had made them irrelevant felt too big to look at.

I did, however, receive invitations to contribute to other people’s projects, and this was a kind of rope to hold onto as I pulled myself back up the mountain. One of those calls for submissions came in the form of a questionnaire called Quarantine Musings from some lovely people I briefly a few years ago at a small zine fest in Newark, Delaware. They do a zine called Red Tent, a collection of visual art and writing that the creators make during the time they’re menstruating, the idea being that this can be a time of increased, or maybe temporarily altered, creativity. When they described the zine to me I had a strong emotional response to the idea, so I created a visual poem about menopause looming on the horizon and submitted it to an issue that came out in 2019. This time around, I contributed answers to questions the zine’s editors posed about the pandemic. Anyone could respond to the questionnaire, not just people who menstruate.

The issue came out a few days ago and I thought I’d share it with you since it’s free to read and really beautiful looking. It’s called “Escape From Middle School Bedroom.” The editors have packed a lot into these 76 pages, and you can feel the love and care they put into the project. Below is a bit of what I wrote. If you’d like to read the full interview and enjoy the other contributors’ photography, collage art, mixtape song lists, and clever pop culture references, you can read it here.

  1. new routines you’ve created during this time

My partner Joe and I run a show space in our house where we host readings, art shows, and musicians, and these events have become an important part of our lives. Having to cancel and postpone them has been one of many personal losses we’ve experienced during this time. We decided to try doing shows online instead, and it has really helped. Once a week we do zine readings and every weekend we play noise music, live on our Instagram channels (@thelalatheory and @displacedsnail). Making music and talking to people online has been fun and healing, and it helps us stay connected to people in our small community.

2. old routines that you miss most

I most miss the day-to-day of being around other people: walking on the sidewalk here in my Philly neighborhood, riding the bus, being downtown for work or appointments, and picking out the clothes I’ll wear on a given day. I miss seeing and being seen by people, friends and strangers alike. It has also been painful for me to not be able to go out to shows and dance parties, which is a big part of my life.

4. stay-at-home makeup or fashion looks

Okay, so—I love wigs. I enjoy putting together costumes from thrift store clothes and cheap wigs, and will occasionally wear a wig out at night, but even though I’ve wanted to I’ve never worn one of my wigs on a normal day because I worry it will look too fake or weird. Now that I’m making these live videos a couple times a week I’ve embraced their fake weirdness and wear a different one every time. It’s felt powerful (and fun) to come up with a reason to dress up and, instead of worrying whether I look “good,” focus on looking interesting. 

5. new recipes you’ve attempted and/or conquered

One of my favorite recipes is for Mexican chocolate cookies, which have cayenne powder and cinnamon in them. They’re chocolatey and chewy and the tiny bit of added heat makes them special. Last week I tried a new recipe for a Mexican chocolate quick bread, but I had to improvise a bit because I didn’t have the ancho chile powder it called for and used cayenne instead. It came out WAY too hot for a sweet bread and was actually pretty terrible (though that didn’t stop us from eating it, ha). I made the same recipe a few days later without any hot spices and it came out delicious. (Recipe here)

6. your makeshift home office setups

I already had an office space at home because that’s where I do most of my work. My office is a small, cozy room that I have festooned with strings of lights, plants, my collection of shells from the beach, a radio, and lots of little pictures and post cards, a bit like a teenager’s bedroom. I try to keep the energy in there soft and safe but stimulating enough that I can stay excited about my work and get it finished. 

7. ways to accept/combat boredom

I find boredom to be a hard concept to define since for me it usually has a lot of feelings mixed up in it. The boredom that has come upon me during this isolation time seems to have to do with the psychological stress I’m feeling that makes it hard or even impossible to concentrate on any of the things I can do here at home, including things I usually enjoy. When all this started, I focused on doing what I could. Some days that has meant writing a text instead of a letter, or doing one hour of work when a whole day or even half a day felt impossible. Slowly my capacity to stay present has increased. 

8. book, movie, television show, music, game, or Instagram account recommendations

I love reading Conrad Benner’s Instagram posts (@streetsdept). He’s an artist and curator who runs Streets Department, a website that documents street art in Philly. I admire him because he grew up here and his love for the city and its people is evident in all he does. He consistently speaks truth to power while maintaining a positive attitude. Throughout this pandemic he has used his platform to talk about renters’ rights, opportunities for artists to earn money for their work, places where people can get free food, and so forth. He’s really cool.

I’ve also been super psyched to see that a couple of our favorite DJs here in town are putting their “parties” on Twitch. Last Saturday night Joe and I were feeling down and low-energy, but when we tuned into the livestream we got on our feet and danced!

9. exceptional or unusual interactions with friends/family/roommates/neighbors (positive or negative)

Tonight we ordered take-out from a pub in the neighborhood that we really love. They threw together a website for online ordering during quarantine and are doing curbside pick-up. Getting take-out could never replace sitting in that cozy place and listening to music while we eat or drink, but their food is great and we miss them. Today is Easter, and when we got back home and unpacked our food we saw that they’d put a big handful of foil-wrapped Easter chocolates inside a rubber glove and tossed that in with the stuff we’d ordered. The sweet gesture, together with the scary visual of the surgical gloves everyone’s been wearing, almost made me cry. 

In the Tombs of the New Kingdom

~I wrote this six weeks ago after what turned out to be the last time I’d be downtown, or in public in any way, in all this time. It seemed weird to share it when quarantine was first starting, but now it feels right.~

This morning I got off the train on my way to the library at Penn, where I like to work sometimes, just like I did when I was a student there some 20 years ago. I’d taken the train from my neighborhood to University City station, renamed in just the last month to Penn Medicine Station. To me (and I suspect to others) this is an annoying change, but then again I’m old enough to remember people who found it annoying to hear the area called University City, as if the universities there owned the place when really it was just West Philly, the city, which belongs to us all.

I have a lot of feelings about having gone to this university. To this day when the subject of college comes up I hope no one will ask me where I went, in part because the school has a funky (and well earned) reputation here in its home city for being acquisitive and bullying, and in part because it feels so embarrassing to have something expensive like this, my fancy education, as an old friend once put it. But it’s also true that I have a deep love for the place. Learning things there was life giving; just about every class I took was as good—as rich and challenging—as any other. Even doing nothing but walking around the campus and looking at the buildings never got old. It still hasn’t. I still find it so beautiful there.

One of the things I love best about Penn is its anthropology and archaeology museum. I’ve been visiting the Penn Museum—staring at the spooky, elegant mummies resting behind their glass cases—since I was a little kid from the nearby suburbs. The Ancient Egypt rooms are kept dim to protect the mummies and I felt protected by this too, safe and cozy in the soft darkness but down-deep thrilled at the same time. For years these images and feelings lived in my mind as hazy childhood memories, maybe something from a movie; it wasn’t until I took an anthropology course in one of the building’s classrooms that I made the connection: Holy shit! The mummy place is Penn! Realizing this made me feel lucky, like maybe life had some magic to it, like if I paid attention I could always find my way back to the places I most need to be.

The short walk I make from the train station to the library takes me right past the museum. On this particular morning, despite my best efforts to feel cheerful, a prickly mood was starting to take hold. Who knows why. The start of a week of PMS, a looming therapy appointment, the stupid train, which was like a million degrees for some reason, all the jerks in this city with their stank attitudes; all of the above. I had work I was on my way to do but then I walked past the museum’s beautiful courtyard, with its fountain and massive iron gates, and my shadow self whispered, Let’s go see the mummies.

I have visited the mummies many times over the years, usually alone. It’s a pretty reliable pick-me-up. It’s partly the atmosphere in that building, I think, with its highly appealing 1930s Indiana Jones vibe, but mostly it’s the ancient civilizations. There is something so incredibly comforting about an ancient civilization. Reading about the people, thinking about them, looking at their stuff—it’s all a kind of balm for my fried nerves, my never-ending sadness and confusion. Cuz look! They had makeup too! And hair combs and food bowls and bracelets. Music and gods, weddings and funerals. Just like us. They were hopeful and scared, in danger and in love, just like us. They made all these pretty things and this helped keep them safe, helped them organize and understand their lives, just like our objects and rituals help us, at least some of the time.

And now all those people are gone. Long, long gone, the ancient dead, either withered to a hard husk in the desert sand or meticulously wrapped and lying in a massive tomb shaped and painted to look just like them. I like wondering what their lives were like, what it felt like to be them. I also like not knowing, the impossibility of it. If none of their stuff had survived I guess we’d never know they’d existed, and it wouldn’t even matter, would it? We think we know so much but really we know so little, we’re just trying our best, and this not-knowing but still-trying unites us across time and place to all the ancient people, the ones we like to tell ourselves were primitive compared to us.

Sometimes I take my time and look at all of the museum’s exhibits—Central America, Africa, Ancient Israel—but today I zooted through the Middle East and went right to Egypt. I stepped softly into the dark hall, quiet and polite, the hush of their gods all around me. I looked at the cat statues and tiny pots of kohl, getting myself ready for the main event. When I finally made it to the smaller rooms where the mummies are kept I spooked around in there for a minute, seeing nothing but my own reflection in the glass. When I was ready, I made myself look in at the person lying there and I heard myself whisper Hey, like to an old friend. 

Hey, thanks.

There is a ladder.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.

“Diving Into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich

I haven’t been able to write for two weeks now. Sometimes I’m afraid to leave my house, even for the things I’m craving, like exercise and fresh air. During this strange time I have also gone through whole cycles of worry: I worried at first that the things I care about, like the new job I was so excited to start next month, would be disrupted. When I realized there was no way they wouldn’t be disrupted, I accepted it, then was hit in the face with a wave of sadness because some things were more than disrupted: They were gone. The job I was about to begin doesn’t exist anymore. I have savings and another job, so I’ll be fine without it. But I felt sad to have to let it go.

I have other worries, too. One of the weirder effects this pandemic has had on me is an anxiety, painful in my body, that’s affixed itself to all the people in my life. For a week straight I woke up every morning thinking about a different person I know, realizing I didn’t know whether they were okay or not, if they felt lonely or scared. So I started checking in—we’ve all been checking in with each other, and that has been beautiful in its way. Feeling dislocated from individual friends and from communities and networks of people generally has truly disturbed me, much more than I would have expected. It feels good to know that we’re all thinking of each other now and refusing to lose contact. It seems like something we could build on.

Another unpleasant feeling inside me has been the fear that people’s small businesses will be crushed by the economic tidal wave over our heads. Locally, those businesses are my neighbors; I care about their owners and don’t want them to lose their work or their dream of owning their own place. I’m afraid of what I stand to lose, too. I feel needy. The time you spend in a coffee shop or bookstore or bar makes it a kind of home, and I need these homes, those places where I feel safe and welcome. I don’t want them to go away.

There’s an independent bookstore near where I live in Philadelphia called the Spiral Bookcase that I really love. It’s such a special place—all small bookstores are, I think, but this one is especially dear to me for a few reasons. First, they sell both new and used books, which has always felt correct to me. Why should the two be separated when most readers need both the old and the new, the popular and the just-plain-weird? Second, a sweet cat lives in this store. If you sit in a chair she’ll jump on your lap, or climb on your knees when you crouch down to look at things. Third, the shop is magic. Its main room has fiction and nonfiction books on a variety of subjects, and off of that is a smaller room of occult books. They’re about witchcraft, theology, philosophy, and metaphysics, and the atmosphere in there is delicious. A small collection of healing gemstones, tarot decks, and candles are tucked in and around the magic books, being magical. I always leave the shop feeling softer, walking lighter, and sparking with ideas.

Last week the store’s owner announced on social media that she was working to get more books and other items listed on its website. I was excited when I made my order. They offered delivery by mail and curbside pickup, and I chose the second one thinking it would be a nice reason to leave the house. J drove me over there this afternoon, just a minute or two in the car on a major road with very little traffic. A bus pulled over in front of us and a few people wearing surgical masks got off at a quiet bus depot that is usually a literal mess of human liveliness, people smoking and laughing and pushing as they wait for their rides.

J parked the car and stayed in it while I walked up to the pretty storefront. Following the protocol they’d emailed me I knocked, then stood six feet back from the doorway on the sidewalk. The sweet-faced young employee who answered the door looked like she’d been having the same tense two weeks as I had, but when I said I was there to pick up “an Adrienne Rich book and a witchy kids’ book” she smiled. She went back inside to get them and I was alone for a moment on the street. Quiet, quiet, so quiet. When she returned she had my books in a bag that was marked with my name, which touched me in a funny way. My name was also written on the bag of muffins I bought yesterday from the coffee shop around the corner, another business I dearly want to stick around. In pink, in a person’s hand, on brown paper: Katie.

I have these two books at home with me now and I catch myself mining them for meaning, the meaning I’ve been having a harder time holding onto recently. All around my house, at any given time, I have several stacks of books in various stages of being read—they sit on the floor, teetering a foot or two high, like prehistoric cairns. I’ve been trying to shake some meaning out of those books but their pockets are empty. Maybe these two will be the ones that do it for me.

The Adrienne Rich book is Diving Into the Wreck because of course it is. Of course that’s the book. Diving into the wreck is what I’ve been doing for months now in therapy, pulling up things that have been buried for a long time and letting them see the light of day, turning them in my hand so I can see them from all angles. Some of them disintegrate when they finally hit the air. I need these poems now; I’ll need them tomorrow too.

The witchy kids’ book is called Bony-Legs, and I bought it for a dollar because it’s about Baba Yaga and because it was published in 1982, when I was a little kid myself. The illustrations, scary but cute and crawling with detail, are by Dirk Zimmer, whose wonderful imagery still dances across my early memory. Watchful eyeballs, grinning skulls, vines twisting into shapes. I don’t think I ever had this book, but my school library might have. Looking at the pictures stirs something very old in me, something not uncomplicated but basically good. They make me feel alive.

Baba Yaga is a figure from Slavic folklore. She’s a witch, a mean one, who lives in a house that stands on chicken legs. There are lots of stories about her. In this one she is called by her nickname, Bony-Legs, and she tries to cook and eat a sweet young girl who comes to her door looking to borrow a needle and thread. But before she meets Bony-Legs, the girl shares her food with the witch’s neglected cat and dog and greases the squeaky, old gate (“Poor gate!” she says) with the butter from her sandwich. Because she was kind to them, the cat and dog—as well as the silent gate—help her trick the witch and get away. The story is a lesson about being kind, but it’s also about living in a place where magic is ordinary, expected. The cat gives the girl a mirror and tells her to throw it away when she’s in trouble. The dog gives her a comb and the same instructions. As the witch chases her, the girl throws the mirror behind her. It turns into a lake, but Bony-Legs finds a way to cross it. When the witch gets close again the girl throws the comb on the ground, which grows from the dirt until it’s as tall as three trees. It forms a barricade that Bony-Legs can’t get through, and the little girl runs home, safe. Not only that, but we’re told at the end that she never saw old Bony-Legs again.

We don’t question the logic of fairy tales when we read them. We know that in these worlds, witches can live in enchanted forests and cats and dogs can talk. These are the worlds of childhood and deep sleep and old fears, and they’re real, as real as a book you can hold in your hand. The stories don’t all have happy endings, but in them, anything is possible.

Drawing by Dirk Zimmer

Secret Histories

I’m thinking today about experience and the body, about objects, physicality, and boundaries. Where in our bodies do we experience things? How do our feelings get inside us, and where do they live once they’re there?

Sometimes there’s something about an object or a place or even a feeling that makes me love it so much that I wish I could truly possess it, that I could somehow absorb the thing into myself like The Blob. It’s not exactly a comfortable feeling, and actually I don’t know if love is quite the word, either. It’s more like longing, a craving I might not ever really be able to satisfy.

I bought a book yesterday that made me feel this way, overcome with bodily desire as I read it in the bathtub, wishing there were more points of entry than just my eyes on the page, the writer’s ideas in my mind. I’d already bought the book as an e-book when it first came out a couple years ago because I loved the title and was familiar with the work of some of the contributors. But when I saw it in the bookshop I knew I had to have the “real” book too—so that I could finish the book and reread a few of the essays, but also as a talisman to carry around with me in my black backpack, to hug to my chest. It’s called Becoming Dangerous: Witchy Femmes, Queer Conjurers, and Magical Rebels. Such a good name for a book, a whole world I’d like to inhabit if I can just find my way in. 

To get to the bookshop Joe and I made the long, pleasant walk through our neighborhood to the one next to ours. Up hills and through the honest-to-goodness woods of the Wissahickon, a forest within the city of Philadelphia. Over a bridge on busy Henry Avenue that’s over 170 feet high, where you can stand and look at those woods below, bend over a bit and rest the side of your face on the stone barrier because it’s not high at all, which makes the bridge dangerous, tantalizing. Past turn-of-the-century row houses like the one Joe and I live in as well as larger, older ones, with crooked wrought iron gates and messy, sleeping winter gardens. I got that old, funny feeling during the walk, when the early spring sun warmed my face in the cold air and I smelled someone’s sweet wood fire burning, and my body remembered walking in the neighborhood I grew up in, after I was grown but still living there. The way I could walk the streets and crave everything around me even as I was living it. What is it about me that makes me so hungry for more?

One of the essays in the book is by Maranda Elizabeth, a writer whose zines I read and admired years ago but lost of track of at some point. With their vivid descriptions of the apartment and building they live in, painted in every shade of purple and filled with books, plants, and trash-picked, reclaimed objects, Maranda Elizabeth conjures something truly magical. Among other things, they write about “learning histories and legacies of [their] blood family,” which is something I’ve been involved with too. Learning the recorded history and the secret history that exist side by side. Learning how to tell the truth, if only to myself, and merge the two histories into one.

Discussing the depression and migraines, witchcraft and psychic premonitions that run in their family, Maranda Elizabeth writes: “I reclaim everything I’ve been told is fake and irrational.”

Me too. Yes, I reclaim these too. But it’s been a struggle to do so, and at this point the person I’m wrestling with is me. The rational part of me has always been so mean, making fun of my shadow self, telling her she’s crazy, ugly, getting it wrong again. That her feelings are somehow incorrect, and her memories of her own painful lived experience were probably misunderstandings. I wonder where on Earth she could have learned all that? 

There’s another witch-writer, Siobhan Johnson, whose work has helped me recently. I’ve read her writing on her website, in her email newsletter, and through some of the courses she offers, where she returns frequently to the idea of “the shadow self” and the necessary work of integrating our submerged, hidden, and denied desires into our conscious minds. Recently she wrote: “Your shadow, like a toddler… just needs love, support, acceptance, and little bit of what it wants.”

This feels true to me, and finally, after working on it for some time, it feels good. I’ve spent the last several months meeting my shadow self, listening to what she has to say, and then giving her a little bit of what she wants (and okay, sometimes I spoil her). Turns out I quite like her. She’s the one with the impeccable taste in music, and the one who chose the black backpack and the rotating collection of patches and pins that adorn it— a bright yellow pencil, a black cat, a drawing of a human skull with a plant growing from it. It’s possible that, of the two of us, she’s the true artist, and I think she’s been the funny one all along. 

And as I write this I think: Oh. She’s the one who’s so hungry, practically starving for life. She’s been hiding in the dark all this time, after all; she deserves to feel the sunshine on her face. I think I’ll keep feeding my shadow the things she wants—not the things she thinks she wants, like cigarettes and denial and obsessional thinking, but the things she needs, the things she deserves. Maybe I’ll even let her start calling us a witch, finally, if it means that much to her. Cuz why not? All along we’ve been building altars together, casting spells of protection with mundane materials and whatever attitude we could manage. Together we’ve learned to embrace our wildness, becoming something that’s both more animal and more spirit at the same time.

This morning as I got dressed I said to my cat, “Happy Women’s History Month! Did you know we have our own history?” and then chucked to myself in sadness and irritation. But as I said it I remembered: Of course we have have our own histories. It’s just that they’re secret histories, made of coded language, concealed intention, and steely survival. Those aren’t the kind of histories that well-intentioned commemorations like Women’s History Month are ever talking about, though. You have to look elsewhere, go deeper, to find stories like that. You might have to squat down on your haunches in the woods and smell the dirt; feel the lure of the tall, tall bridge and decide to keep on walking; straighten up from the floor of the cozy, cramped bookstore that honors your people and holds space for your stories and find the book you need, right at eye level, looking back at you.

Here’s what ya do

Catch the bus downtown. It’s always early, for some reason, so leave now. As soon as you push the screen door shut behind you you’ll start to feel better. You’ll start to feel better as soon as your sneaker-feet hit the pavement, one and then the other taking you down the hill. You’ll pick up speed and feel better. Your errand is trumped-up but that’s okay. This is good for you. En route.

Look around at faces you don’t recognize. A universe in a city block, a new show every time you watch. The sunlight never hit the window of the fried chicken place quite like that before. The other people on this sidewalk, in motion beside you, they will never pass you in just the same way ever again. Brand new.

Wait for the bus near the corner, at the less-lonely stop. Think about the time you stood behind a tiny girl and her mother while the girl blew bubbles with a wand, and you watched one float closer and closer to her mother’s face and waited for her to notice it too, which she only did as she turned her head and it popped on her nose at the same time as she saw you looking, and you both laughed. Think about how you think about this every time you wait for the bus on this corner. Same old.

Remember yourself, on your way home from a club one middle-of-the-night, sticky red Robert Smith lipstick on your mouth, squatting down on the pavement to touch the fur of a stray kitten. The girl who stopped and asked you whose cat it was looked like a younger version of you, standing sturdy on long black-denim legs, and you could tell she saw it too and she smiled. Twin flames.

Feel the warm dry air blast your face as you step up into the bus. Hydraulic hiss, swipe your card, say thank you to the driver whether she looks at you or not. Stride down the aisle with the confidence of a person who doesn’t care if she stumbles on a moving bus. Sit down. It doesn’t matter at all where you sit. Choose a center-facing bench and spend the whole ride seeming not to stare at the guy across from you, cuz it’s awkward. He’s right there. He has really dark blue jeans and a puffy bright blue coat, and pristine white sneakers. You are on this bus together when either or both of you could have been someplace else, who knows where. This means something, you can feel it, but you don’t know what. He catches you looking. Aw man.

Someone on this bus smells like laundry, like a warm house. Red and white lights from the traffic on the street slide across the metal bars that curve around your cushioned seats. The street outside the window looks battered and lonely but you love it. Fling your heart out there, see if it comes back. Look down a million little streets you will never live on, think about a world full of people you will never be. Be yourself right here right now. Fuck yeah.