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. 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.

Me and My Shadow

shadows

Content warning on this one, pals: mention of sexual assault, lots of F bombs

A long time ago now, I wrote a zine and published it under a fake name. It was an obviously fake name, a bit rude, and I picked it because it made me laugh. I won’t tell you what it was because that zine is still out there in the world, and if you knew—if anybody knew—that I was the one who wrote it, it wouldn’t feel the same to me anymore. To tell those stories properly I needed to pretend to be someone else.

On the surface, the stories were not that big of a deal. Just some childhood memories of a spooky religion and adults who weren’t very nice to kids, turned into funny stories by someone who was still mad about it. Since the writer of that zine had an obviously fake name, the stories could have been written by anybody, which had a way of making them larger than themselves. This was fitting, because I am not the only person these kinds of things have happened to. 

I made an email address for that pseudonym, and she got letters from people who read the zine and wanted to share their own stories. Those stories were pitiful, too, but they were also always a bit funny. We weren’t talking about abuse or terror, after all—just the daily grind of boredom, befuddlement, and shame, the little indignities of life that we all suffer to some extent or other. I’d say that reading, writing, and talking about this stuff was cathartic for everyone involved.

Some months after I put the zine out I went searching for it online. I don’t remember why now; I think I was trying to see if any of the shops that carried it had listed it on their websites. What I came across instead, to my surprise, was a review of the zine on someone’s blog. I don’t remember most of what the review said anymore, just that the writer related to the stories and enjoyed reading them—and that they thought I was a fuck-up. The way they said it was something like, “this is where a fuck-up comes from” or “this zine is like the fuck-up’s origin story.” I will tell you right now that the moment I read this was one of the most satisfying in my entire life as a writer, or the public aspect of that life, anyway. I am not even kidding. It meant that something I had written had been a success in the realest meaning of the word: I’d set out to be completely honest, and someone had recognized it—they’d felt the “cut of truth,” as Natalie Goldberg calls it in Writing Down the Bones, her classic book about learning to write. 

The truth cuts, and it heals. Since I had made up that ridiculous name I could say anything I wanted, the way you can in a diary. It happened that the things I wanted to say were insulting, a bit immature, and very angry. And wow did it feel good. I was surprised by how freeing it felt to write this zine, in fact, since I write about my life all the time and I’m always trying hard to be truthful; I mean, that’s the whole point of doing writing like that. But this little experiment of mine taught me that I can always dig deeper.

I have thought about this many times over the years, this idea of me as a secret fuck-up. By secret I mean that I probably don’t seem like a fuck-up to most people. In fact I might even seem like the opposite: Hard-working, stable, fortunate, my middle class background written all over my face. I’m polite and my house is tidy. I did well during those years I wrote about in the zine, even—I was the fucking valedictorian of my high school class! But I hated the way I felt sitting in those classrooms, humiliated and trapped. I hated most of my teachers, thought they were stupid, and felt suffocated and insulted by the oppressive religion I was subjected to every day. I hated the kids who believed in it, their prissy smugness, and the adults who let themselves be bullied by these weird authoritarians who’d convinced them they had heaven to offer. I hated it all until it made me sick to my stomach, but I balled up my bad feeling and used it for the energy I needed to study hard and get good grades. I did this because I understood that being angry all the time would somehow mark me as a fuck-up—the fuck-up I thought I was, even though I had so much going for me.

When I read that review of my writing I felt seen, and I know you know what a glorious feeling that is. It’s so rare, so precious, that when it happens you’re usually about a minute away from falling in love. I’m sure it helped that the writer of the review was using the term fuck-up affectionately—or, I guess, knowingly: From one fuck-up to another was the general feeling I got. But I would have treasured that comment even if they’d said it to be mean. I had shown my real self—one of my real selves, I should say—and someone has seen it. A split inside myself was healed. Or if not quite healed, at least patched up a little.

***

I’ve been going through some personal turmoil over the last few months, something very hard. It’s brought new ideas to the forefront of my mind, ideas about family and belonging, safety, secrets, and shame. About what it means to tell the truth, and how hard it is to actually do that. I’ve been thinking a lot about what honesty is and where it is, where in the body. When something feels too painful for you to look at, where do you put it? And if it’s been tucked down in there for a long time, how do you dig it out? 

I don’t know much about the various schools of psychoanalysis and have tended not to be very interested in them as a subject, like intellectually, but as I say, I’ve been doing some searching. I read an essay recently about the Shadow Self, Jung’s idea of the Id. It’s the part of ourselves we keep hidden from ourselves but is there anyway, motivating some of our behaviors. Those hidden aspects of our personalities are usually things we consider negative, but positive stuff can get tangled up in the Id too. It’s a jungle in there. 

I warmed to the idea of the Shadow Self instantly. It reminded me of my inner fuck-up, that poor, pissed-off girl who thinks no one can see her. The one who was so split from the rest of me, I had to give her her own name. She’s been tagging along behind me all this time, and I really do love her after all. She tells the truth and makes me laugh. I need to recognize her, integrate her more—I need to do some shadow work—and even though I’m not quite sure how, I’m on a path, and I’ve been seeing signs to guide me as I go.

Like: In the car last week I passed a street called Moonshadow Lane. Later that afternoon I found a jigsaw puzzle at a thrift store that had the word moonshadow in it, too. Like: “Dark Morph,” the new song by Jonsi and Carl Michael von Hausswolff, who made an album out of sounds they collected on a research vessel: whale song, the sound of bats flying, gorgeous and terrifying. It conjures half-seen things moving elegantly, slowly, deep beneath the ocean’s surface, where the light barely reaches. It’s as if everything in the world has a dark side, a shadow self, but I’m only able to see that now for the first time.

One of the things that has always drawn me to Wicca, though I don’t practice it as a religion, is the idea of embracing the darkness, or at least accepting it as the balance of the lighter aspects of life. Wicca is a nature-based religion, and with nature as a framework for understanding ourselves these ideas are easier to conceptualize. Life is a cycle, the year is a wheel, and every season is necessary. The seed of death inside the heart of every summer day—you can feel it there. The green life tucked underneath the frozen ground in winter—you can feel it there. Everything is everything. 

Poking around the library the other day, I found a small book called Two or Three Things I Know For Sure by Dorothy Allison, a writer who I have loved for her brainy and fearless truth-telling. This book is too short to be a proper memoir—less than 100 pages long—but it is about her life. Allison, who grew up very poor in rural South Carolina, always writes about her own life in some way—and because of some of the details of her life, she also writes about secrets, shame, stories, and truth. In this book she writes that her stepfather raped her, beginning when she was five. She writes here, and has written in other essays and books, that she refuses to feel ashamed of who she is and where she comes from. But reading her writing, something more powerful even than that proclamation comes through: She very clearly just isn’t ashamed. Her honesty and love—love for her mother and sisters, her partners and queer community, as well as for herself—make that apparent.

Allison also writes that she didn’t tell the story of her abuse for a long time because stories like that have a way of defining their teller. She didn’t want to wear the coat of many colors, the one in the Bible that’s so brilliant no one can see the person wearing it—they can only see the coat. 

She says: 

“Behind the story I tell is the one I don’t.

Behind the story you hear is the one I wish I could make you hear.

Behind my carefully buttoned collar is my nakedness, the struggle to find clean clothes, food, meaning, and money. Behind sex is rage, behind anger is love, behind this moment is silence, years of silence.”

I think this is excellent, this image of stories like matryoshka dolls, one inside the other. In a sense this is the hardest part of writing, figuring out when the story begins. You have to strip away so many layers to get to the truth, but how do you when to stop? Do you need to tell them all for the picture to be complete? I don’t know yet. What I do know is that, one way or another, we need to find a way to integrate all of our stories if we want to become whole.