Fear and the Living

Wicked naming conventions.

Flourishing life tends always to be irregular and unruly, thwarting efforts to tame its abundance in the name of the gods of progress and reform. Contrast the fecund jungle with the neat lawn. One of these thrives.

They called our disorder ungodly, our love a danger. We called it nothing. It was more action than word. Show me a fish with a word for water.

We were often depicted in the company of cats, those mysterious shapeshifters, notoriously hard to catch and easy to love (for the loving), famously resistant to authority.

It was an art, how we lived, but the enforcers of absolute power renamed it. Not art, but craft. Not sister, but witch. To rhyme with a popular slur. 

One way to remake what you fear is to recast it in caricature. So, they made us: black, dark, weird, dangerous. Sure, love and life were all of these and more, but they would have none of it. The dangerous alchemy of a tiny morsel of knowledge in a boundless pool of self-righteous confidence.

We loved and protected. They guarded, refused. We grew; they took. We watched, waited, listened, shared. They announced, stockpiled, amassed.

Our most transgressive act, as some saw it, was the giving of a familiar spirit to the daughter or granddaughter, along with strategies for survival.

And, that we lived. In loving community. In later caricatures, one of us will be pictured as ancient, outcast, poor, and alone. She was our great-grandmother. She raised and taught us. When they burned our village, she was in the field. She survived.

Our detractors persist. Always in the name of progress, reform, order. We know them by their obsessions with mechanized gadgets and purity; acquisition and the order of lawns. And we know them by their mistrust of music, dance, the wild and untamed arts––and cats. And by the names they call those who challenge their systems of order, and their fear of women (and numerous others) who speak against authority.


This morning, while looking into the work of the American scholar and artist Deborah Willis, I came across an article by another scholar of the same name who seemed (to me) to be exploring parallel lines of interest to the Willis I was looking for, albeit in different focus areas. The article is “The Witch-Family in Elizabethan and Jacobean Print Culture” (Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Winter 2013). As (the other) Willis explains, the idea of the solitary witch was preceded by a longstanding suspicion of witch families. Matriarchal and poor families were especially prone to suspicion, and mother-daughter bonds created “a special locus of anxiety.” Pamphlets warning of witchcraft tended to correspond with a growth of Protestant handbooks on the godly household, as part of a (patriarchal, colonial) effort to make “family central to a vision of absolutist rule.” I found the discovery timely on many levels.


Between lives.

At the discovery of crows nesting nearby, some shoo them and some shrug, but one woman puts peanuts out. The crows love the peanuts and take to returning for more, sometimes cawing her awake on weekends. After some time, they begin to bring her gifts: here a marble, then a bottle cap, then an acorn. Crows are known to do this to show their appreciation. The woman keeps these gifts from the crows in a jar, shows them off to her friends, and now there is a baby bird in the nest. Look, she says. Now we’re a family.


Inspired by this article.

How We Hold

On the ties that bind us.

Our long infancies make for long bonds, as with elephants, primates, and crows. Herodotus had a mind to study family ties, but he couldn’t find a set given when it came to what lines they might follow or what shapes they could take.  

The sheer helplessness of the infant explains a few things about the biological necessity for the strength of such long bonds, and yet. Isn’t it also true that most of us are walking around with at least one infant inside us, however carefully swaddled, who is bound unpredictably and for no reason––but their own––to cry out, Help! Hold.

Consider the etymology of family: one part property, one part servant, one part friendship. A prayer for the body collective: you are mine and I am for you; friend, take my hand––the original need, made and remade.

Consider the wide-ranging implications of the phrase to be heldholding. A hand is not a cell. A tie is not a cage. A friend knows that the hand may be stretched in any direction, across a table, Here; down into a dark recess, Pull! and up from another deep hole, Help! A body among friends will naturally do all of these again and again, unless prevented by some opposing force.

I love the way that in some contexts, almost every exchange is followed by an, I gotchou. How often, in these same places, you might rarely hear proclamations mentioning love or devotion specifically. But watch the hands of the men as they pass: fingertips, then palms, then full grip, knuckles, wrists, sometimes all the way up the arm to a full embrace, as if the point is to practice different ways to hold. To say with the body, I got you.

Family Albums

You think you know someone, and then here is a whole other person.

One possibility, when it comes to telling what is commonly called one’s “own” story, is to take one’s own memory out entirely, and is to limit yourself to the favorite anecdotes of family members. A person can create childhood memories based entirely on the number of times a given story has been told. 

Parents can be especially amusing sources of these tales. The time you had your mother, eight months pregnant with your sister, just up three flights to the third-floor apartment with the laundry, go back to the basement to retrieve your imaginary friend. Another time you were in hysterics because your father sat on that same friend. 

How you cried when the street sweeping truck came by, the horrible beep-beep truck, you called it. And there was that redheaded boy, do you remember? He would push you down, take your shovel, walk away, and you would sit there, not wailing, just quietly sad.

“Bubbling” by Kimli on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.

And the gravy! How you loved it with croutons from a box. Your concerns over the new baby, over your mother getting up and down the stairs. Your favorite hiding place behind the couch. How you could speak nonstop or not at all.

Huh, I think, remembering by power of suggestion what it would never have occurred to me to know on my own. You think you know someone, and then here is a whole other person. The fact that there were even specific moments to remember is what really gets me. I recall only a constant susurration of light and color, sound and touch. It lends credence to the idea that a person may have parallel simultaneous lives: the one they remembered, and the one I felt I was living. They have images, even pictures, and there I am, and it must have been me in that bowl haircut with those eyes looking back, holding the garden hose, but all I remember is the colors of light filtering through shallow water, and the way I would fly in my dreams. Palms and fingers in bright paint, and the hollow space among bushes in the back yard. How I would go in and wait there. The sense that I had of finding a secret, tiny room in an endless forever, and it was quiet all around, and safe except for the possibility of snakes and other monsters I had not seen except on TV and in books.

Funny, the pictures they show. This is what is, this is what was. They shaped me then, as they do still, these stills. But the image I had was constant, and I wasn’t in it because there was me watching, squinting sometimes, as I took in was the shifting light and colors on the surface of an ever-moving stream, wondering about the world just beneath it.