These days I’ve been thinking a great deal about spells. What sort of power is running through us when we cast negative spells in life?
I’ve heard many people say that it feels good to express their rage because they get their power back. The problem is that all-too often the rage gets discharged on an innocent third party. Who can forget the 13th wise woman who crashes the party and curses the baby because she hasn’t been invited to the feast?
In fairy tales, words have power. The curse of an angry witch can turn a king into a frog, or sentence a child to death at the age of 15. Dark motives craft dangerous curses, ballistic missiles that destroy lives. If you don’t want to cause harm, you have to mind your words.
Even characters who speak unconsciously, out of aggravation or frustration, can do a lot of damage. When the queen in the Grimm’s story The Raven gets annoyed by her crying baby, she says: “Oh, I wish you would just grow wings and fly away!”
Poof! The baby turns into a raven and flies out the window.
The same thing happens in real life. Powered by feelings of outrage, envy, or fear, words fly out of our mouths before we can catch them. The worst spells de-humanize. They cause us to think of ourselves as damaged or diminished, and we can live in those prisons for years.
I came under a spell on my very first day of school. In a spelling class, actually! I told this story in the Immanence Journal interviews, and at the 2017 Storytelling Festival, so I’ll keep it brief, but here’s what happened. The teacher gave each child in the classroom a little exercise book and a packet of crayons. As she spoke, I pulled out a blue crayon and drew a blue line down the spine of every page in my book — just to make it my own. Suddenly the teacher appeared at my desk. She snatched my book, marched me up to the front of the class, and told me to open my book so that everyone could see the blue line.
Then she taught the children a spell. “Shame shame double shame!”
The children boisterously repeated the chant, doing a fist-over-fist gesture to really drive home the “double shame.”
Back to my desk I went, humiliated.
I carried on through school and the incident slipped out of memory. I just had this feeling that if I didn’t follow instructions to the LETTER, I would get yelled at or ridiculed.
In first year university, I decided to major in English literature, and in one course, I wrote an impassioned essay on the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. After the marked papers had been handed out, the professor took me aside and said: “Let me give you some advice. If you want to guarantee getting A’s in literature, take all that creativity of yours, put it in a pack on your back and never look at it again. Listen to what your professors are saying, and write what you know they want to hear.”
I was appalled and soon abandoned English literature, rejecting its ‘subjectivity’ for the more factually-based discipline of history. In my second year, I veered into the history of science. I became interested in the great paradigm shifts of history, and the power of dominant world-views to reach deeply into hearts and minds.
One day, one of my professors called me into her office. She was a brilliant rationalist, a feminist who wore trousers and sat on the desk cross-legged when she lectured.
“I really enjoyed reading your paper,” she said when I walked in. “There are some really good lines in here!” She proceeded to flip through the pages, reading aloud every metaphor I had used. It took me a few moments to realize that she was LAUGHING at them as she stroked them out with her red pen. In her presence I felt so shamefully feminine. On my way to the elevator I thought, “I will never use another metaphor again.”
I stripped all metaphors from my papers (and frills from my closet) yet I could not stop myself from writing poetry. Some deep interior voice insisted on speaking. It rose up out of silence. It was with me in my lonely places. It was an old voice that spanned histories and lifetimes.
Yet the poet was a stranger to me.
Kahlil Gibran understood the strangeness of the poet to himself and the world. He wrote that the poet feels “there is no one in the universe who understands the language” he speaks. Yet he insisted that the poet must never deny her own nature. A poet is a rebel, he said, and must speak truly. He thought that the worst crimes in literature were “imitation, distortion, and conformity.” (Quoted, Andrew Dib Sherfan, A Third Treasury of Kahlil Gibran, 247-248)
Life went on. I got an M.A. in the history of science, and another one in journalism. I married, landed a job in advertising, and bought a house in the suburbs. I continued to write poetry but felt split-off from that part of myself, increasingly trapped in a two-dimensional life. Then one day, the rebel poet spoke out. I wrote a poem called The Poet and Lady Shame, which began with these lines:
In a hovel on the other side
of the river that parts
the limbs of the city
from its heart
the outcasts carry out their lives.
I pay them a visit from time to time:
the Poet and Lady Shame.
The poet is lonely, caught off
like the limbs of the starfish
to write these lines into the wide void
while the waters run out of the world
and the earth cracks, old and bewildered…
And when it is done, and the thing conceived
she flies out, only to run headlong into Lady Shame
who leaves through and leaves her
jangling away with her jumble of keys.
She cannot get around her into the world.
She keeps her dobermans at the gate.
Who is this Lady Shame figure, I wondered? In the latter part of the poem I challenged her, and a dam burst. I started to dream huge dreams, a torrent of pent-up water rushing for freedom.
I didn’t know what to do with the dreams. They were so overwhelming I refused to sleep. I developed insomnia, terrified that my psyche was staging a coup. I tried to hold myself together but I was starting to crack. My eyes twitched, my mouth twitched. I felt like a porcelain doll about to explode.
Then one day I invited my aunt out for lunch. I had only seen her a couple of times. She hadn’t had much to do with the family, but now that we were living in the same city, I became curious about her. We went for Chinese food and sat side by side at a round table. I asked her to tell me about her life. She wasn’t very forthcoming and finally she said, “You know, Michelle, I’m really not all that interesting. I’ve led a very conventional life. But I do have a rich inner life.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I felt as if she were opening a secret garden door.
“Well, I dream,” she said. “I record my dreams in my journal.”
“How do you do that?.
“Well, I open my journal,” she said, using her hands to demonstrate, “And then I draw a line down the center of the page. I write my dreams on one side and my daily events on the other. Just noting things, nothing elaborate. I don’t analyze what I’ve written. Then I close the book and let the two sides speak to me as I go about my day.”
Needless to say, I immediately started a dream journal. I drew line after line down the center of the pages, and the flow of dreams became less terrifying, more informative. I started to see the relationship between the two sides of the page, and so began my life’s work. For over 30 years, I have been recording my dreams and exploring the relationship between the deep mind (as it is expressed through dreams, myths, and fairytales) and daily life. I have had remarkable dreams over the years. They have lit the darkest passages and have inspired many of my own mythic stories.
My aunt helped me to break a powerful spell that day, though it took years to fully comprehend the significance of what she did.
And so the story ends. At least, I thought it had ended when I began preparing to tell my spell-breaking story at the 2017 Storytelling Festival. I memorized the Lady Shame poem so that I could include it, and then, as part of my preparation, I went for a voice-movement session with a colleague. He asked me how well I knew this figure of Lady Shame. Might I wish to give voice to her?
Sure, I thought. Why not? As I began to connect wih her, I felt the power of this incredibly judgemental figure lodged inside me. I let her out and she strutted around the room speaking her mind. I didn’t find her entirely convincing. Yet after the session ended, I went home disturbed. Would Lady Shame sabotage my presentation at the festival? Worry soon morphed into anxiety. I used to have debilitating performance anxiety. I could see Shame standing on the sidelines with her arms crossed, her eyebrows arched and a smug “I told you so” smirk on her face….
Was I still under her spell?
The anxious voices grew stronger, and no amount of reason would shut them down. After days of battling, I took hold of myself. I could NOT let the spell get the better of me. I thought about the protagonist in the fairy tale I was going to tell. The young man in The Crystal Ball keeps moving towards his goal of freeing the princess who is the Beauty of the World. He is resolved to free her, regardless, and in so doing, he gains more and more freedom to move. “Keep going forward,” I told myself.
But my thoughts were a whirlwind. “Lady Shame won’t let you speak that poem out loud. She’ll find a way to sabotage you!”
Then it occurred to me that in the fairy tales, an interesting reversal takes place in the course of breaking a spell. You have to take hold of it. Turn it upside down or inside out. Unspell it.
If the poem is the poison, then the poem is also the medicine.
I walked to my bookshelf and picked up a book that had been sitting there for some time. Saved by a Poem, by Kim Rosen. As I began to internalize her beautiful book, I started thinking about the poetry I love. Poems that give me faith and courage. Lines from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. The steadying words of William Wordsworth. In Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, he wrote…
…this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men, 130
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our chearful faith that all which we behold
Is full of blessings.
I learned the lines, chanted them, walked with them every day as the festival presentation approached. They infused me with a calming remembrance. There was no space in me for fear of shame. Nor was Lady Shame anywhere in the room when I told my story.
The fairy tale heartily supports the activism of the heart. The protagonist is always having to choose where to put her faith. Do I put my faith in others or in myself? We can find all sorts of evidence for the validity of a long-held negative conviction. But to counteract it, we have to draw on what we know to be true. And act on that faith. Make-believe until the spell breaks.
I’m incredibly inspired by people who keep the faith in themselves, however impossible their tasks appear to be. My sister’s injured brain doesn’t enable her to read and write but that doesn’t stop her. She loves words. I’ve never seen her more focused and attentive than when she is writing letters and sounding out words. Many therapists and educators have “given up on her” but she hasn’t given up on herself. She is breaking spells every time she’s spelling, and one day, the spell will be broken. She’ll crack that nut in this lifetime or in the next.
In any case, she’s free.
As Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself (verse 20):
I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.
One world is aware and by far the largest to me, and that is myself,
And whether I come to my own to-day or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.
(illustrations are mine)