Displacement Blues: Valise in Wonderland

By Tarin Towers

Perhaps my story isn’t remarkable; perhaps it’s remarkable because I’m not desperate; perhaps I’m not desperate because my story isn’t remarkable.

I’m writing you from a smallish, largish studio in Bernal Heights, on a dead-end block that backs up against Bernal Hill, one of the peaks of San Francisco that, at its topmost, is parkland with hiking trails and little cliffs, covered in green where moisture can cling to it, where moisture is available these days.

Tonight I have the French doors thrown open to the night air, and it’s raining, and the tree inside the gate is tall and old enough that it keeps the rain at bay, and I stand outside in near-pitch black as it rains all around but not on me, feeling surrounded by nature and ensconced in luxury both.

The house, little downstairs and large above, is built into the hill on a block that’s quiet enough that when neighbors make conversation with one another in booming voices as they get in or out their cars, the voices both carry and have the manner of events. And yet, apparently the bushes at the edge of the hill are a homeless encampment, which is something I haven’t spotted evidence of from the movement of people; they must come over and around the hill with few possessions, as the block is steep enough to prevent pushing a cart or hauling bags up it; when I’m carrying groceries, I can barely make it up the hill without stopping.

I sat outside for a smoke a little before 11 one night this week, and I could hear cries—a woman in ecstasy or a curious cat? I decided it was a woman; wondered if she was indoors or out. A neighbor in a house or in the bushes? Hard to know.

The yard here, behind a gate and climbing the back of the hill, is parklike and luscious, landscaped with all sorts of drought-resistant plants and sand and mulch and paving stones. The other night I heard actual wildlife—raccoons, probably—moving down the hill and around the house, two or three creatures grunting and snuffling like wild pigs, little yips in between like a giant kitten would make when barking at a fly.

My fairy godmothers are taking care of me this month, that’s for sure, and next as well, as it happens.

I met with my hosts a few days ago; the place I’m staying in is downstairs from their mother, and when they said they wanted to meet up I had a fear that they were going to say I should plan on leaving sooner than the month they’d offered. I imagined scrutiny: I had my regular assortment of collated luggage, clothes and papers and various comforts, plus camping gear and costumes from my trip (about which see more below).

I know you’re reading this, so let me get this out of the way: I was afraid that if I was too at home in your home, you wouldn’t want me there anymore. My stuff, not yours.

These friends had helped me move my things into storage and so were witness to just how much crap I owned, and I was embarrassed that they held this knowledge. These are close, closest friends, and we love each other as unconditionally as non-blood friends can, I think, and yet: I still had it in my head that they’d take a look inside their property and find me unsuited to it.

My feelings were complicated by a voluntary uprooting I was doing to myself: I had been offered this apartment for July, but a friend had contacted me to ask if I’d look after his cat, and his house is beyond well-appointed, with a deck overlooking the city and the bay, and chef’s kitchen, a vast entertainment center and a hot tub, if memory serves, and when he asked about the dates, I didn’t have wifi here and well gosh…

Anyway, here I am, in your house, come scrutinize the way I look in it? I tend to even travel with clutter, I can’t help it, I would find a way to make clutter if I only had three objects in the world. I know it’s ridiculous for a homeless person to buy a painting but my friend distilled my life onto canvas and doesn’t it suit just everything? But so anyway I cleaned up, it looks nice in here, come in, you own the place.

Instead of asking that I leave sooner than I thought, they offered to let me stay longer than I’d dared ask, and so here I am, ensconced in (mostly) the same place for July AND August, less housesitting and another retreat. Lucky blessed grateful awestruck happy & exhaling skepticism bit by bit.

Don’t slow down, Towers, you are still looking for a place to live, aren’t you?

Am I now. I am finding more unsuitable things. I am warming back up to the task now that I have wifi here. I am considering my options, and fortunately, and unfortunately, I have more options than I have anything else.


INTO THE WOODS

I’ve been trying to figure out what to tell you about my vacation. I went to California Witchcamp, a weeklong intensive in the Reclaiming Tradition of witchcraft, which, whatever you’re picturing, probably is just like that but also nothing like it. It’s not a festival; it’s a coming together of participants in which we “work” a story; that is, it’s told from beginning to end but enacted in ritual form several times over the course of the week, each ritual autonomous but also building on the last.

What kind of ritual? Well, things one might see are meditations and trance journeys of various kinds: Walking around or gazing into a fire; wandering through the woods listening to the hoofbeats of invisible horses; sorting seeds while sitting at the feet of an ancient witch channeled by a younger one. You’d find ecstatic singing and dancing and deep introspection, the naming of fears, the crying out of hopes, the wielding of magical tools and healing herbs, and, you know, witches beating drums while other witches dance naked around a fire.

The rituals are mostly led by a teaching team consisting of ten experienced witches whose individual gifts range from herbalism to reading ancient runes to costuming to songwriting, and whose gestalt gifts all include storytelling and the shepherding of the collective attention of the assembled witches around corners and over precipices they might not have thought to cross alone.

[Keep in mind, also, that we’re camping in either tents or old cabins with no electricity; there is no Internet and no cell phone reception and people pretty much keep their devices stowed away. The food, prepared with love and great skill by the kitchen witches, is enough to make up for sleeping on an historic iron cot.]

This year we worked with the story of Vasalisa and Baba Yaga, a Slavic myth with a similar beginning to Cinderella, but which gets much more sinister, even counting the Grimmest versions wherein the sisters cut off pieces of themselves to please the crown, and in Baba Yaga’s tale, Vasalisa saves herself or allows herself to be saved by not fucking things up, and any rescue actual or implied is not about the love of a prince or any other man.

Some versions of this tale are called Vasalisa the Fair, or Vasalisa the Beautiful, but I much prefer the other title, Vasalisa the Brave, because it memorializes her courage and her deeds.

In the story, Vasalisa’s loving mother dies, and before she does, she gives her a dolly to help her watch out for herself. Vasalisa must feed the dolly every day, and talk to her, and she will always know what to do. Enter the wicked stepmother and stepsisters, exit the now-absent father, heap here and there the endless chores assigned the child who grows ever more beautiful as she grows ever more kind.

Off into the woods with you, they cry one day, pushing Vasalisa out the door to fetch fresh fire from Baba Yaga. No one returns from meeting the old witch, the Grandmother of Time, who travels through the air in mortar and pestle, steering it with a broom, and who lives in a hut that hops about on chicken feet, which hut is contained by a fence made out of human bones, guarded by human skulls, gated by human finger bones. VERY WITCHY. Very dark. Vasalisa is scared, but not out of her wits, and luckily the same goes for the doll.

I wasn’t certain I’d feel a very deep relationship with the story this year, which involves the solving of impossible tasks, which I have some recent experience of doing and which I wasn’t sure I’d want to embark upon again.

I had worked this particular Baba Yaga tale with some other witches years ago, but it turns out Vasalisa’s journey through the woods is in fact a story about housing, and power, and privilege, and I found myself pulled in deeply to what my intention was to participating in this work, this year: Questions about what home is, both what the concept means and where it might be located, and further both as external coordinates and landing point and as a place of sensing and knowing in my own mind and body.

On the Night of Impossible Tasks, instead of sorting seeds, I presided over the sorting of them from Baba Yaga’s chair inside her counting house. It is quite a perspective, to sit in Baba Yaga’s shoes and refrain from hitting insolent children with sticks. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

California Witchcamp is always both challenging and restorative, but this year in particular was special: I went to my first witchcamp 10 years ago, and the fact that I could “make contact,” that is, have experience of altered states of consciousness and communication with something bigger than myself without taking anything is what allowed me to quit drugs and drinking, a process I began in earnest by the end of that year.


Gleaner’s Index

Number of campers at California Witchcamp this year: 113

Number of additional teaching, kitchen, and organizing staff: 10, 10, 2

Age of youngest camper: 18

Oldest: 86

Proportion of men to women in attendance, roughly: 1:4.5

*

Years California Witchcamp has taken place in its current location: 20

California Witchcamps I have attended: 8

Year of my first Witchcamp: 2005

Witchcamps currently listed on witchcamp.org: 16

Number that occur within the United States: 9

*

Minimum number of species of mosquito in the Mendocino Woodlands this year: 4

Number of simultaneous methods of insect repellant that failed me on the hottest day of camp: 5

*

Year the Woodlands was built by the WPA and the CCC: 1934

Year it became an established nonprofit organization: 1949

Year it became a National Historic Landmark: 1997

Number of campgrounds built by the WPA, including the Woodlands, that have been used for camping continuously since the 1930s: 1


Buried Treasure

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Have you ever felt rich, I mean really, really rich, I mean in a way that isn’t transferrable, but you think maybe it should be, I mean have you ever felt gigantically lucky and incandescent and spendable and known you couldn’t spell it out, if anyone asked, because you’d sound crazy or primitive, like the best you could do would be “I feel like candy” or “Nobody better touch this” or “I’m unloaded but totally full,” and there’s no way you can spend riches like that because you can’t exchange good for goods. This is the Zimbabwean five hundred million dollar banknote. It’s not worth anything. It’s worth five hundred million units of short term memory, maybe it’s worth one kernel of popcorn that didn’t quite pop all the way, but having it, holding it, you’re a kazillionaire, you’re loaded, you’re totally unloaded but completely full. The psychic equivalent of champagne and chocolate truffles, only no one else has laid hands on it on its way to your consuming it, you’re not consuming it, you’re made of it. I wonder if rich people ever get to feel like that. I wonder if rich people always feel like that. I wonder if coercion takes that feeling away. Money is coercion. This money is absent that now, but its history is not long. Zimbabwe was previously known as Rhodesia. Any riches I hold are not mine, except the feeling of incandescence, which I have burned into all on my own, or not only on my own, not on my own at all, only at the will of spirit.

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Mr. Bunny got to to to witchcamp, too. He doesn’t get to go to the Woodlands, because it’s made of dirt and full of creatures that could eat him. Sometimes he has feelings about the fact that he’s not a “real” rabbit, but he’s pretty happy generally about the indoor life. He spent our vacation holding the magic wand atop Elizabeth’s writing desk, where she works her own magic. He felt like a real wizard, he said. Like a warlock, he said. But really just a rabbit, he said. So I guess I’m a witch, he said. Hand me a broom, there’s cleaning up to do. 


advice for men (I always have some):


Selfie of the week

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I was thrilled, thrilled to be going off the grid for a week into the redwoods, putting away my iPod and my laptop and not tweeting, not chatting on Slack, not updating my Facebook status, not texting—so I also took hardly any pictures, as the camera I have now is the one in my iPod. The last afternoon of camp, however, I dimly remembered that I wanted to return from my voyage with documentary evidence of myself witching about so that I’d have at least one selfie for you this week. Here I am, wearing a knitted hood and a pendant I was informed at camp represents St. John the Baptist’s apocalyptic vision of the Virgin Mary, bearing her joys and sorrows in equal measure—her joys may be numbered as the countermeasure to her suffering at the fate of her son. Me, I’m clutching my water bottle; having fought the dragon Voldemort, I’m the warrior in repose, smirking at boys and smoking cigarettes with my friends under the trees next to the creek, singing along with Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at the 10-minute after-dinner dance party, sacrificing my blood to the mosquitos, feeling worn and blessed and counted.


Keyboard, keyboard burning bright

Movement is afoot in the worlds of both writing and housing. i sure do hope I have some links to send you soon. Also, the stand-up comedy gig got postponed. It’s all good with me, I just checked in to see what condition my condition was in.


The best thing I’ve read since last we spoke

Book on paper: None; I’ve been catching up on the New Yorker.

The Flower (the New Yorker) It took me a long time to read a novel by Louise Erdrich, even though I’d heard her name again and again with reverence and adoration. Erdrich is a Native American writer whose work generally ties together themes of crime and the supernatural, either in “frontier” times or on contemporary reservations. Her short story “The Flower” begins at a fur-trading post with an altercation between the trader and a desperate Ojibwe woman, and excavates ideas such as “rescue” and “escape.” The writing is both crisp and hypnotic, and like with all of Erdrich’s work, including her novels, I wished it was longer. (If you want a longer work, maybe start with The Round House.)

You’re Not Off the Hook: The White Myth of Black Forgiveness (The Toast) When the family members of the Black parishoners who were massacred in Charleston pronounced, in the courtroom and at press conferences, that they were forgiving Dylann Roof for the actions that took the lives of their family members, a lot of people—people outside the AME Church, people outside the South, white people—misinterpreted the act of forgiveness as a clear and sudden decision to move on: To not grieve, to not process, to set the past aside immediately. Writer and education entrepreneur Carvell Wallace, interviewed here by the publisher of The Toast, clarifies that forgiveness is something that Black people find themselves having to do in order to survive the constant state of violence that is being Black in America.

We have to forgive the sinner because the accumulated resentment could destroy us, but that will never mean that we don’t fight tooth and nail against the sin.

Hot and Bothered (Slate) First of all, Daniel Engber wants you to know that we spend a lot less fuel, money, and carbon on air conditioning than we do on heating our homes. With that settled, he takes apart the Northern idea that air conditioning is some kind of luxury or sin. He excoriates a recent piece in the Times that uses spurious science to claim that making oneself cooler actually causes unhappiness. The writer of said piece has probably never been to Baltimore or anywhere else where the humidity and the temperature can both be in the 90s for days on end, or as Engber puts it, “In New York City, winters are unlivable while summers merely suck. In another state, that formulation might have to be reversed.” Sometimes a good takedown of bad science writing can really make one’s day. In the meantime, I’m doing my best to stay in San Francisco, where on the 3 or 4 hot days a year everyone goes to Safeway or the movies, the only air conditioned places in town.

A Man and His Cat (New York Times) I have a several friends who have lost dearly beloved longtime feline companions after the last two years. I’m not sure what occasioned the recirculation of this piece from August of last year, but I’m glad I ran across it. It’s not so much an elegy as a personal recollection about how the writer, Tim Kreider, reluctantly became a cat person, with all the secret foibles that can entail, singing and treats and elaborate nicknames and strange compromises always in the cat’s favor. Kreider lost his cat of 19 years shortly before writing this, and I find myself wanting to break all sorts of norms of etiquette by writing to this stranger and asking him if he’s gotten a new cat yet. He deserves one. If you need, for some reason of contemporary moral anguish, to justify the keeping of cats as pets, here is your Montaigne.

Now Streaming: The Plague Years (The Baffler) Zombie movies, attests A. S. Hamrah, started off as hypercritical, unflinching social realism in the very first one, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,”  and have since devolved into simple mirrors of a zombified society, people ensconced in couches watching throngs of their counterparts shuffling along onscreen, attempting to eat the brains of those more or less suited to survival, those resourceful enough to keep the zombies at bay not armed with familiarity with the field guide to zombies provided by the last 47 years of zombie apocalypse literature, but with surefootedness provided by walking the moral highground of physical fitness and gun prowess. My brother made a short zombie film a few years back, “Lawn of the Dead,” in which our protagonist doesn’t keep up with his landscaping and thus must confront an infestation of zombies. It’s a hoot. Matthew’s long been interested in Romero and all things zombie, and I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to say about “Night of the Living Dead” as an historical artifact of 1968.

Notes and Errata: I generally hold myself to a standard in this section: To recommend more links by women than by men. But this week, I had a limited amount of time for reading, and I didn’t want to just recommend a bunch of stories from the same two issues of the New Yorker, and I was tempted to just recommend some quickie news links about Uber or evictions or income inequality, so here I am promising on the record to have more stories by women for you next week.

THANKS FOR READING | IF YOU MADE IT THIS FAR | LET’S SLAP MOSQUITOS FROM EACH OTHER’S FOREHEADS | HI, MOM

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