On possibility

A Prayer
by C.P. Estés

Refuse to fall down.
If you cannot refuse to fall down,
refuse to stay down.
If you cannot refuse to stay down,
lift your heart toward heaven,
and like a hungry beggar,
ask that it be filled,
and it will be filled. 
You may be pushed down.
You may be kept from rising.
But no one can keep you
from lifting your heart
toward heaven—
only you.
It is in the midst of misery 
that so much becomes clear.
The one who says nothing good came of this,
is not yet listening. 

Earlier this year I confided to a dear pen-pal that I was going through a tough time. I don’t often like to tell people about tender personal matters face to face, but I find I can “talk” about them in writing. I’ll put them down on paper and then send them off, like hopeful little paper airplanes, into the hands of a trusted friend, and see what comes back to me. 

So yes, in some ways I have had a sad, hard year. But as I told my friend in my letter, reading helps. Some books have been a downright salvation. I tore through Mark Haddon’s novel, The Porpoise, which is based on the ancient story of Pericles, a prince who goes to sea and has adventures. I had never read the myth before, and its details had me totally engrossed. There was something about the story, with its violence and passion; its birth, death, and rebirth; that I found uniquely comforting as I was dealing with the more elemental stuff of my own life. Using the strange, dream-like symbols of fantasy, myths like these cut to the heart of everything that’s real.

The stories we call fairytales and folk tales are like this too. My mother, when she was going through her own tough time, once mailed me a photocopy of the poem “A Prayer” by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. (I ask you, what would I do without my beloved pen-pals?) Estés is a Mestiza Latina psychoanalyst and a cantadora—a keeper of the old stories—who has recorded readings of several of her books. When my mom was feeling sad and lost, she listened to Estés read from Bedtime Stories, a collection of stories she learned from her family as a child, and they helped her get safely to sleep, where her unconscious, creative mind could start to sort out her troubles. 

I’m thankful to my mother for introducing me to Estés, who has a dreamy voice and so much to teach us. In another one of her collections, Mother Night: Myths, Stories, and Teachings for Learning to See in the Dark, she talks about the need for these kinds of fantasies. Mother Night, she explains, is an ancient archetype, sometimes called Mother Sleep: “…not sleep like unconscious, but sleep as in opening the door to stories, ideas, innovations, inventions, and dreams.” She’s the “medial force” who “stands between the two worlds, handing things back and forth, informing the world that has grown too dry with things that are moist and alive. Things that rise from the unconscious, that rise from the dark.” 

A few days after I sent my letter, my friend wrote back with another reading recommendation I’m thankful for: Feminist Folktales From Around the World. These are tales that were compiled and edited by a scholar named Ethel Johnston Phelps in the 70s and 80s, and that have recently been reissued in four volumes by the Feminist Press. “I love how sassy and possible the tales all are,” my friend wrote. This sounded like a very sound endorsement to me, so I got a copy of the first volume in the series, Tatterhood, and filled my head with its wild imagery while I reflected on the idea of possibility

Phelps, in an illuminating preface, explains that before these stories and others like them were written down, they were told orally, mainly by rural women, for well over 1,000 years. When in the early 19th century they began to be compiled and put into print, it was by outsiders who were usually well-educated men of a different social class—and in the case of stories collected in Africa and Asia, a different nationality and race. She posits that the bias of these story collectors, along with the possible reluctance of the women to share their stories with a person who might ridicule them, could account for the relative lack of strong female heroines in the fairytales we’re all so familiar with today. 

The stories in Tatterhood, by contrast, feature heroines who exist outside the made-up binary of young, beautiful, passive / old, ugly, horrible. Instead, they are adventuresome, sensible, brave, clever, and fun. Marriage is not the point of these stories, and it doesn’t usually matter what the women look like. The men, when they do appear, are more fully human, too—not boring stock heroes who do everything and save everyone, but real people who appreciate a woman with a bit of sense and sometimes need a hand themselves.

Take Tatterhood, the heroine from a Norwegian tale. She’s a charming and no-nonsense girl who saves the kingdom from a pack of destructive trolls, goes out adventuring on a ship by herself, and impresses the hell out of a young prince with her bravery and attitude, not her looks. I also loved “Janet and Tamlin,” a Scottish Borders tale, because when Janet falls in love with a knight, she goes out to rescue him from the fairy queen who’s holding him captive—at midnight on Halloween!

But my favorite heroine in this book is the plucky old woman in “The Hedley Kow,” a story from the north of England. Hard-working and undaunted by bad luck, she earns the friendship of a fun-loving goblin (the “kow”) who everyone else in the village thinks is scary and mean. This story in particular has a lot of humor in it, and as I read it I could hear the voice of my own hilarious grandmother, my mom’s mom, whose people come from that part of the world. When the old woman in the story finds a pot of gold by the side of the road, she says, “Ah! I feel so grand I don’t know myself rightly!” That’s just what my grandmother would say to me whenever anything special was about to happen. “You won’t know yourself!” she’d say approvingly, when my mother had gotten new furniture, or I’d won a prize in school. She’s the only person I’ve ever heard use that expression, and remembering her made me feel connected to the character in a way I could really feel. That’s the power of folk stories, I guess: the power of the folk themselves. 

In her preface, Phelps says something about the tradition of women storytellers that I really liked. “The phrase old wives’ tales, now used derisively, takes on a new and more positive meaning—for the old wives’ tales were, indeed, the very rich and varied source of each nation’s heritage of folk literature.” 

Yes! I promise to never again call a silly belief an old wive’s tale. The old wives sure know what they’re about, the grandmothers and the cantadoras. Let’s treat their stories with the love and respect they deserve—and let them teach us what’s possible.

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