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 my answer to one of the questions; if you’d like to read my full interview and enjoy the other contributors’ photography, collage art, mixtape song lists, and clever pop culture references, you can read the whole issue here.
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.
~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 partly just because it feels embarrassing to have something so expensive—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, enveloping 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 was a college student enrolled in 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 life had some magic to it—like if I paid attention, I could always find my way back to the places I 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. So I went.
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 it wasn’t pointless, it 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 even know they’d existed, and it wouldn’t really 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 for a minute, seeing nothing but my own reflection in the glass. And 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.
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.
When we got to the bookstore J parked the car, and he 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 had also been 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 acquisitions from the magical bookstore 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 with the butter from her sandwich. (“Poor gate!” she says.) Because she was kind to them, the cat and dog—as well as the now-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. Phew.
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.
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 hug to my chest and carry around with me in my black backpack. 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 could 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. 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. 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. During the walk I got that old, funny feeling—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 those 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 a little, feeling irritated and sad. 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.
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.
I have this friend who’s really into clowns. She has lots of clown figures and pictures in her room and a couple clown tattoos, and she finds a reason to dress as a clown at least once a year. I admit that I made fun of her the first time she told me about it, while she was cutting my hair in her living room. (That’s how I know her; she cuts my hair.)
“But no one likes clowns!” I said. I guess what I was thinking was, I don’t like clowns. She put me in my place.
“No, plenty of people like clowns, and I’m one of them,” she said. Then she went on to talk about how the idea of clowns, and the image of them, just resonates with her, and it made sense to me in that context. She’s a sensitive person and a punk; plenty of things make her sad. But she appears to enjoy the hell out of her life, like day to day, with all her conversations and interactions, and she’s a fucking riot. I get it: She’s a clown!
Still, let’s get real. A lot of people are afraid of clowns, probably for the same reason that any costume or mask that obscures a person’s face is scary—you don’t really know what you’re dealing with. There’s something horrifying, too, about a painted-on smile. We’ve all known people who wear a fake smile more often than they don’t, and they’re spooky to be around. Do they even know what they’re feeling underneath that death’s head grin?
This clown conversation took place in the spring, and it’s October now, the spooky season, my favorite time of year. I’ve got three dress-up events to go to this month and I plan to wear a different costume for each of them. Making costumes out of thrift store stuff and wigs is one of my greatest joys in life. For one of the events I plan to dress as a character from Stardew Valley, a video game I love, and for another I will probably not be able to resist reprising my Lydia Deetz costume, which I made entirely from clothing in my own wardrobe and is FLAWLESS. I just needed one more idea, so on Sunday morning while I drank coffee on the couch I poked around on Pinterest and opened up my mind. I don’t know if it was the sort of activated, full-moon/menstrual mood I was in, or what, but a picture caught my eye as if I’d never seen one before: the sad, pale face, huge eyes, and painted-on teardrop of a pierrot, the original sad clown. It just looked so perfect to me. Good god, how had I never realized that I love pierrots?! I love that they’re medieval, seemingly ancient, but I also love the deep-70s versions I’ve seen in those dreamy pastel paintings, the pink circles on each cheek and soft neck ruffs in shades of grey or white. It speaks to me, this delicate, feminine, genderless creature. Pierrot is a male character, but many modern interpretations of it are done by women, or are androgynous and childlike. Sometimes goofy, always sad. Pretty and poetic, with a broken-doll, antique-circus aesthetic that makes complete sense to my soul.
Right away I went upstairs to try on clothing, and while I was dragging stuff out of my closet I found the weird French dress I had to buy when I found it at a thrift store a year or so ago because it was clearly special but still haven’t worn because it just looks so odd. It’s got black and white stripes, a boatneck with a few buttons at the throat, and three-quarter-length, sort of floppy—dare I say clownish—sleeves. It also has a dropped waist and is rather short, which gives the skirt at the bottom a flouncy shape even though the dress is made of a heavy cotton. Yes, it’s too strange to wear on the street—it’s more like something Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett would wear to the beach—and I’m not a big one for dresses in general. But it is JUST the sort of thing a pierrot would wear.
I put the dress on, then started playing with make-up. A few lines of black eyeliner pencil exaggerated the largeness of my eyes and the naturally fretful shape of my brows. I painted on a creepy little heart-shaped red mouth and there it was: My own small face, only sadder and spookier. The dress hung just right too, the way it encouraged me to stand askance with my skinny wrists dangling from the cuffs, a middle-aged ragamuffin. Perfection. It had been awhile since I’d felt as pleased and satisfied as I did looking at this image in the mirror. I don’t want to overstate it, but it was a bit like seeing myself for the first time. This is the thing about costumes. Famously, they let you become someone else—but they’re also very good for showing you how to be yourself.
Once I was all jazzed up about the idea of this costume I got ready to go to one of my favorite thrift stores for a few other elements, like maybe a white turtleneck to wear under the dress that would suggest an Elizabethan neck ruff. It happened to be perfect autumn weather that day, sunny and cool, and I loved the way I felt in my clothing—a Cure t-shirt tied at the waist, oversized black jeans, and black sling-backs. I caught the bus downtown and hopped off at Chestnut Street, feeling fine, music in my ear buds. I hadn’t walked a block when my left shoe started to feel funny and heavy. A few more steps and it fell apart completely, dropping the sole on the sidewalk like a long turd. Terrible, but I kept my chin up. I stuffed the bottom half of the shoe in my tote bag and hobbled over to a different bus stop, knowing that if I could just get to the bountiful thrift store I’d find an inexpensive pair of shoes that I liked well enough. And I did, ballet flats with an ankle strap that will suit the pierrot costume and looked good with my jeans. (Five bucks!) I found the turtleneck I wanted, too.
I tell you this part of the story because everything about it is very me. The comedy, the tragedy, the strained dignity, the thrift store victories. And if walking out the door with a sense of purpose and a broken shoe isn’t a sad clown, I don’t know what is.
Long story short, I must count myself among the weirdos who like clowns, since I now see that I am one. A clown, that is. It’s a bit of an awkward development but I’m embracing it completely. I might even look for ways to thread some of my new identity into my everyday look: some theatrical eyeliner, maybe, or a more curvaceous lip line, something to accentuate the sadness that never really goes away, that can feel like my lot in life, that I often wonder if anyone else can see. I’ve found different ways of coping with this sadness over the years, but maybe I’ve been missing something. Maybe the only way out is through.
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.
In June I attended an unusual event at Parkway Central, Philadelphia’s wonderful main library. It’s such a wonderful library, in fact, that if you were feeling fanciful—or if you had recently looked through a book of type specimens—you might be inclined to call it eminently grand, bold and solid, magnificent.
Yes, our library is a special place, and the “Reading Type Specimens Aloud” event was unique. It was organized by The People’s Museums of Philadelphia, a project run by the artists Leah Mackin and Alina Josan, and its conceit was that anyone who looked through type specimens like the one above would want to read aloud from them—to “declaim their contents,” as the organizers put it. After looking at the books myself I see their point.
Type specimens were books produced by type foundries, the companies that manufactured the metal and wood type used in printing presses, to showcase the type for potential buyers. But rather than simply printing the alphabet in the different typefaces, they composed the type into sentences and turns of phrase, many of which were poetic or amusingly strange. Josan, who is a librarian in the Art Department, explained that the phrases were sometimes left over from print jobs, sometimes taken from popular advertisements, and sometimes composed especially for these books.
The organizers began the evening by going up to the podium and giving brief readings from a couple of the books. Afterward, the rest of us were invited to do the same. We milled around the room and looked at the books that had been pulled from the library’s collection, all of which were produced between the late 1800s and the 1920s—bona fine antiques, some with gold inlay or elaborately embossed covers.
The phrases I liked the best suggested a jumble of images that don’t usually go together, like strange, lyrical poems. In a book produced by the American Type Founders Company of Philadelphia in 1899, I found “Autumn Fashions, Damsels With Beautiful Dresses” and on the opposite page, “Trained FROG Catcher.”
Here’s another wonderful arrangement of phrases I found:
I didn’t go up to the microphone to declaim anything; it was nice, after I’d looked through the books, just to sit and listen to people read something when they felt so moved. The whole thing was reminiscent of Quaker meeting, only much sillier. One woman read some lovely words I didn’t understand from a book in French. Two different people read the thing about headache makers and pocket breakers; can you blame them? Someone else went up to the podium with a book and read, joyfully and very distinctly, “FIRST CREEP. THEN GO.”
Josan told us that Parkway Central is unusual in that books like these, which would be housed in a special collection in many other libraries, are in circulation and accessible to the general public—crumbling pages, broken spines, and all. As we browsed, the cover of one hardbound book that someone was holding came away from the spine and fell to the floor with a slap, but no one made a big deal out of it. It felt like a lesson: while we should be gentle when handling the books, the more important thing is that they get used, looked at, and loved.
If you don’t live in Philadelphia, or you can’t get to Parkway Central for whatever reason, you can find scans of similar type specimen books on the Internet Archive. I “paged” through a few just now and found some excellent phrases. My favorites are “Presenting Prime Novelties From Bright Brain and Deft Digits”—goodness knows what product that florid phrase was advertising— and “24 Glorious Summer Mornings.” I think I’ll take this last one as a reminder to give my bookishness a rest for a while, and go outside.
Photos from type specimen books in the Philadelphia Free Library’s collection
I seem to love every book the Feminist Press ever publishes, so when they put out Laurie Weeks’ novel Zipper Mouth in 2011 I made a note to read it, then forgot for awhile. I finally got around to it this spring, and wow. There is a lot going on here.
The jerk on Amazon who said Bret Easton Ellis already wrote this book, only better, was wrong on both counts. It’s a different book, and hers is better. Though it was written by a woman and narrated by a female character, Zipper Mouth, in my opinion, would be better classified as the heir to Notebooks of a Naked Youth by Billy Childish. I’ve written about Childish’s wonderful novel on this blog before—in fact, one of the things I wrote about was the genderfuck of my extreme over-identification with its narrator, William Loveday, who is a man. Then along comes Zipper Mouth, offering us the female version of that sorta lovable antihero, who never stops spilling her guts in the same filthy, hilarious way.
The novel doesn’t have a ton going on in the way of plot. To sum up, an unnamed (young?) protagonist with a huge personality and a growing drug problem makes her way in New York in the ’90s. (I only know it’s supposed to be the ’90s from descriptions of the book I’ve read. It’s not really apparent from the book itself, at least to me, though the characters do wear a fair amount of animal print clothing.) Like Childish, Weeks has a rare poetic gift; the language in this book is insane. It may send you, as it sent me, googling excellent phrases and weird words to find out what they mean, or if Weeks made them up. A “vent figure,” if you didn’t know, is another name for a ventriloquist’s dummy. A “vaginal vault” as also apparently a real thing. Here’s Zipper Mouth, walking down a New York street in the dead of summer: “The dilapidated blocks had undergone a phase shift from zones combustible with violence to the sultry chiaroscuro of a black-and-white film starring Ava Gardner in a tropical setting.”
Zipper Mouth is marvelously messed-up. (I find I want to call the narrator of Zipper Mouth Zipper Mouth, since we never learn her name—kind of like the unnamed lead in that show Fleabag who, as pretty as she is, seems to be named Fleabag.) An adolescent grown-up who can’t stand to be around anyone ever, she betrays her need for connection through her obsessions with movie stars and unrequited real-life loves. She frequently composes letters to her obsessions, who include Vivien Leigh and Judy Davis, and incorporates them into her thoughts. Her consciousness gushes forth.
Like William Loveday, Zipper Mouth’s primary obsessions are love and lust, and any other emotions she can stoke up inside herself and wallow in when she’s alone. Throughout the novel, on every page really, she tweaks her mood with drugs or quasi-drugs, like cigarettes and caffeine and those speed-like herbal substances weightlifters (ab)use. In her various heady states, she wobbles on the walk-and-turn sober test between florid beauty and visceral revulsion:
“God I love everything, I thought, gazing out my window at passersby several stories below. Blossoms dripping from the trees, robins in love warbling among the peeping spring budlets, trash spilling festively from an orange dumpster. … Love leaked from my pituitary and converted on contact with my bloodstream into panic and I was swelling up, threatening to leave the ground and float off fast.” Most of the descriptions in the novel are like this. They gave me intense sensations, and though the book is short—you could read it through in a couple of hours—I had to take frequent breaks to keep from feeling overwhelmed. I kept getting “worked up,” the way Zipper Mouth reports feeling when she listens to music and daydreams druggily, or reads something challenging and weird.
In the final analysis, this novel does not have the substance of Notebooks (though both novels have strangely awkward endings); it needs to be more grounded, more finished. But it is literary body horror at its finest. If Zipper Mouth had a thesis statement, it would be something like this line she writes to Miss Davis in her mind: “The body is a great thing, Judy, a horrifying thing, a great and horrifying thing to be trapped in a body, anything can go haywire at any moment, you’re just hanging on with clenched teeth to a rope that swings your body sickeningly around and around over that bottomless and legendary thing we’ve come to identify as The Abyss.”
Three months after I finished this novel I don’t find myself thinking about it; I had to rely entirely on my notes to write about it. There was something ephemeral about it even as I read it, the imagery hard to hold onto, the ideas slipping away like smoke. But it was everything to me while I was reading it. Sometimes I have a desperate need for a book like this, something that gives my inner demons a song to scream along to. Come to that, I made a note while I was reading it that I’d found the perfect musical accompaniment—the doomy noise of an industrial act called Terminal Brain Disease. While I lived (briefly, feverishly) inside Zipper Mouth’s mind, this music came pouring out of the cassette player that sat on the floor beside me, filling the room with its perfect attitude: Witness the absolute horror and wonder of simply being alive!