A witch desires to walk rather than be carried or pushed in a cart.
Last night I had this dream that I was studying a famous person who’d become mentally ill. Unclear who, exactly. I was reading a lot about this person’s life—I think maybe I was an actor trying to play them, or I was doing some kind of PhD research.
But soon, because I was studying this person so closely, I started to lose my mind in just the same way they had. Their first hallucination had been seeing someone across the room who wasn’t there. And so that happened to me, too—I saw a dark figure standing across the room from me by the window. No detail, just the outline of a dark figure who I knew was a hallucination.
So I went to get treatment. I went to this living room in a hospital and it was full of plush couches and musical instruments. The nurse smiled at me, picked up a notebook, and asked me what I thought she should do when my hallucinations started to happen.
“You know best,” she said.
I looked around. There were crayons and finger paints and fuzzy blankets with unicorns on them. I thought: Waldorf for mentally ill people.
“I know what you should do,” I said to the nurse. “Give me kimchi daily—each day give me one serving of kimchi. It will help because it’s fermented.”
She began to write it down. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a headless man across the room. I knew I was hallucinating, and getting worse.
I started pulling out wet clumps of kimchi from the pockets of my broad-skirted black witchy dress and yelling urgently at the nurse, “Kimchi daily! Kimchi daily!”
I moved into the center of the room and made a series of small piles of kimchi on the floor in a line, like a pill box that tells you what pills to take every day. I remember wondering if there would be enough kimchi in my skirt for seven piles, one for each day of the week.
“See, you don't even have to make the kimchi,” I said to the nurse, “I make it myself at home, so you can just give it to me.” (Which is true.)
But then I started hearing a low roaring coming from the direction of the headless man across the room, and I knew I was sinking quickly into hallucination. Even the kimchi wouldn’t be able to save me in time.
And so, lying in my bed at home, I scream aloud. As I often do when the dream threatens to annihilate me. My husband next to me in bed shakes me awake.
“Only a dream, love.” He is used to this. I turn my face to his chest.
“Kimchi daily," I hiss into his skin. “Kimchi daily.”
In my waking life people often congratulate me on taking care of myself so well, with my home-cooked meals of whole foods, all my homemade kimchi and kombucha.
“You have the healthiest diet of anyone I know,” my mother-in-law tells me. “You’re going to live so long.”
“You must have the happiest digestive system,” a new friend remarks. “All those probiotics.”
This is the fantasy of self-sufficiency: healthy in a closed loop, without needing anything from anyone else. So many of my friends are part of some segment of what’s been referred to as “DIY Culture,” in which—though not reared with these skills—we cook “slow food,” weave our own rugs, build our own tables, etc. We make beautiful handmade things painstakingly, proving ostensibly that post-industrial late capitalism has not left us without the capacity to cultivate our bodies and homes. We “develop skills,” and become “craftspeople,” everything a precious work of art.
“The idea of one’s life as a work of art, as something to be invented or composed, transforms the occupational insecurity that faces contemporary workers,” Micki McGee writes of contemporary self-help culture in Self-Help, Inc. McGee argues that self-help, among other social narratives, emphasizes cultivating oneself in order to make one feel that happiness is in one’s own hands as opposed to those of social forces. “Instead of foreboding, the literature inspires a sense of possibility.”
And so, my life seems long and fruitful because of the ferments I make to keep my biome healthy. I am in control of how well I live up to that possibility. Clearly, though, a sense of foreboding has stuck around in my subconscious: the sense that if I don’t work hard enough to cultivate or care for myself, there will be no safety net. I will lose myself, and it will be no one’s responsibility but my own.
There’s a desperation in my dream to get better. But also, as in many of my nightmares, an impending doom.
“Still having, having it taken from your very hands, Whistle, or having no choice but to watch it, to let it, go, is exactly the moment most painful in the dream,” writes poet Lisa Olstein.
This is the point at which I always scream myself awake—the moment when I realize things are inevitably and irretrievably going badly.
I wonder what would happen if I stayed in my dream for that part, if I went past the point where I could manage my own care, if I stayed and listened then.
“Rather than pathologizing illness and self-destructiveness as disorders to be cured for efficiency’s sake, we could reimagine self-care as a way of listening into them for new values and possibilities,” write members of the CrimethInc. Workers' Collective.
But what does it mean to listen in on disorder? Or, what does it mean to listen to illness? If I gave over to my illness in the dream, what would come next?
At my first 12-step meeting the part I hated most was everyone talking about how they couldn’t do it alone. I’d come to Al-Anon, the group for family members of alcoholics, ostensibly to deal with the relational ripples of my uncle’s alcoholism.
“I’m turning to my Higher Power,” said the first person to share, eyes to the ceiling, “because I need to stop pretending I can do it alone.”
“I’m learning what it really means to say we’re powerless,” said another person who fidgeted with their keys, “it means I can’t handle anything by myself.”
I didn’t share at all that first meeting, just listened and silently wept.
But I can do it alone, I thought. I am smart and strong-willed and well-educated.
I walked out quickly at the end of the meeting and evaded the hugs.
What am I doing in a meeting, I thought, where people can’t handle their own shit? A meeting just a few weeks after that kimchi dream.
McGee again, this time summarizing Gloria Steinem:
The popularity of 12-step groups and the rise of the “recovery movement” suggests that a large portion of the population had embraced a “liberation psychotherapy” notion of the individual as sullied during the socialization process—in need of liberation from the strictures of society so as to “recover” a lost self… Steinem asked the difficult question: what are self-help and 12-step groups offering people that feminism, the Left and the Labor movement have failed to provide?
McGee suggests, as have others, that the answer is primarily community: a sense of interlaced care that relieves some of the pressure on the individual—or, more precisely, instructs the individual to show up for communal experience to formulate an activity that will then benefit both them and others, a benefit that is only possible via this gathering in. In Forced to Care: Coercion and Caregiving in America, Evelyn Nakano Glenn terms this, “making care central to citizenship,” in contrast to making care an individual practice or the devalued work of mothers, grandmothers or—as is increasingly the case—underpaid migrant workers of the global South.
In his controversial piece, “An End to Self Care,” B. Loewe proposes removing the emphasis on self-care from its acceptance in social justice movements, because of the way it divides us. He suggests we reorient toward “community care” in order not to isolate us in our own individualistic concerns, and recommends that movement work should itself be the way we care for ourselves, instead of turning to individual activities: alone with a cup of tea or going for a solo jog.
Loewe’s piece ignited a series of responses across activist communities, including a response from writer and disability activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha in which she points at Loewe’s romanticization of the person who needs nothing but work. It’s dangerous, she says, to instruct those experiencing pain or disability to just work harder or be more connected to community projects. Piepzna-Samarasinha reminds us that if we really want “community care,” we need to move towards accessible spaces that actively care for the needs of individual marginalized bodies.
A crucial reminder and always necessary: not all of us are equal under a politic or belief system. Nakano Glenn writes of the “negative impact of coercive labor regimes on the ability of workers and their families to receive care from and provide care for their own kin.” Those working three jobs and barely making ends meet, those working with disabilities and under racist oppression cannot provide care in the same way more privileged individuals might.
What options do we have for a “community care” that does not force us to ignore the difference between individual bodies’ needs nor take the labor of care entirely onto an individual’s shoulders? Community healer Dori Midnight suggests a “collective care,” of interlaced and exchanged services (childcare, healthcare, cleaning, etc) “but,” she writes, “collective care doesn’t have to be instead of self-care,” collapsing here the hierarchy between the two. Midnight imagines situations in which care-related roles (giver, taker, needed, needy) are more fluid, in which self-, other- and community-care form more of a continuum. I imagine this continuum also to allow for a continuum of identities that acknowledge histories, social positions, and oppressions. I imagine my care-worker friends—nurses, doulas, parents, nannies, etc.—being able to care when they have the energy, and being cared for when they are tired, as opposed to a system in which exhaustion means care-workers must remove themselves from collective experience in order to recuperate.
I love that in my kimchi dream I am a witch, dressed in all black, cackling and screeching as my visions grow more intense, pulling stinky preserved vegetables from the deep pockets of my broad witch’s skirt and cloak, swooping across the room, pulled by forces no one else can see.
“One of the most common accusations of witches is night flying,” writes Aurora Levins Morales in Medicine Stories: History, Culture, and the Politics of Integrity, defining this act as:
the ability to change shape or endow a household object, a pot or a broom, with magical powers, and soar above the landscape of daily life, with eyes that can penetrate the darkness and see what we are not supposed to see. From these forbidden heights, one can see the lines of extinct roads and old riverbeds, the designs made by private landholdings, the relationships between water and growth, the proximity or distances between people. Those who can see in the dark can uncover secrets: hidden comings and goings, deals and escapes, the undercover movements of troops, layers of life normally conducted out of sight.
My witch sees madness coming from afar, and attempts to stave it off with her own skills, pulling nourishment from her pockets—this witch who over the course of a few dream-moments goes from a self-sufficient researcher to irretrievably dependent on the care of others.
My dependent self in this dream, she sees in the night. She knows it’s not safe to have to depend on others, that there is not collective care ready in place, not yet. Under these conditions, my dependent self knows she will lose it, she will melt like the witch in The Wizard of Oz. My dependent self: I scream myself awake so as not to stay in her body.