Years ago, when I first started teaching, a woman signed up for my class at the John C. Campbell Folk School in the N.C. mountains because her doctor had told her that if she didn’t do something for herself soon, she’d die. She wasn’t looking for a writing class. She didn’t think of writing at all. She was just looking to do something for herself, doctor’s orders, and she ended up in my group.
In this class we just wrote, and read back to each other, and received each others’ writing by recalling what we liked. As the week went on, we formed a community, and we became important to each other, and we all found out more about this woman. Her alcoholic husband. Her demanding adult children. The dishes in the sink and the laundry on the floor. A smack across the face. She wrote the scenes of her life that week. Through writing from prompts these scenes spooled from her pen and stitched themselves into her story. It may have been the first time she ever told her story, even to herself. Stories are often pattern, and now she could look at the pattern of her own life without the distractions of daily dust-ups of drama her situation kept her in.
She went home after that week and left her husband. She rented a small apartment and lived alone. She wrote me a few times about how peaceful it was. She thanked me. What had I done? Had I broken up a marriage? No, of course not. I’d only held space for a person to hear her own thoughts.
In the burning times, this might be considered the work of a witch. Powerful women, smart women, women with property, women who healed others with herbs and deep knowledge, women who were not married, women who lived outside the “norm” were called witch. But the accusation of witch wasn’t just assumed to be correct. Women were tested for being a witch by various means. Some women were put in a chair and dunked in water. If she was a witch, she wouldn’t drown. Or a woman was needled, her skin pricked and pricked and pricked, because somewhere on a witch was a place she would not bleed. And if she bled, which she did, she was not a witch.
Funny how the tests for a witch always leave a woman dead. Funny too, how this woman was told she was at death’s door if she didn’t do something for herself. Was that doctor a witch too?
The burning times, that I did not live through, and that seem horrific and unrepeatable, are very much on my mind these days, as is the alchemy of writing. I’ve witnessed that alchemy again and again, women and men coming back to themselves, hearing themselves, hearing each other, becoming stronger. I’ve seen the tough and guarded made vulnerable. I’ve seen the meek and voiceless start to speak up for themselves. I’ve seen barriers break down and humanity show through.
And if this is the work of witch then I accept it. Even in these burning times.