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.