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

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.