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A hand-made life

Updated: Apr 10, 2018

Sometimes, you're just not ready for a book when it first comes into your life. Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes was one of those books for me: I tried to read it when it first came out in 1992, wanted to love it... but really didn't. I didn't even finish it. But when I saw a reissued edition in the Self-Help section of the local bookshop, I was curious. I bought it, took it home, put it on my bedside table, read some other things, and finally picked it up.*

This time, I'm loving it. So much so that I can't remember why I didn't like it the first time; I suspect I was just too young, and also that I was still shaking off that peculiar academic disease of the 1980s and 90s known as "Theory", which would have dismissed this book as hopelessly wedded to some biologically-driven definition of "woman". And that's the thing, really: when I first encountered Women Who Run with the Wolves I was busy trying out the lives that the world wanted to offer me (academia, policy) - wandering a long way from the life I've always known, in my bones, I was meant to live. A Jungian feminist exploration of women's archetypal life journey through fairy- and folk-tales was a bit too raw and a bit too daunting, at that point in my life. I didn't really know or want to know, then, what it would take to live in freedom.

The chapter I keep coming back to is "Self-Preservation", a retelling of the "The Red Shoes". I won't summarise either the fairytale or Pinkola-Estes' discussion of it - read the book! - but the central idea is this: when we give up our imperfect, rough-around-the-edges, always-evolving, hand-made life for a glamorous ready-made alternative that carries the stamp of approval from the collective (family, friends, school, society at large) - along with some rules about how we need to behave from now on to remain within the pale - we sever ourselves from our souls. And when we are soul-starved, we look for anything that feels like an echo of the life and joy we once knew within us. Addictions and other forms of self-destruction follow.

The truth is that even if the glamorous red shoes you put on don’t come with a particularly rigid set of rules for how you have to behave, buying rather than making a life has a high price. As the book says, exercising our courage and ingenuity to create something we feel intensely about gives us “enormous joy, and joy is [our] life’s blood, spirit-food and soul-life all in one”. It’s a continual process, too, the crafting of an authentic life: it's a whole life’s work. “The first try can always stand improvement, and the second and often the third and fourth as well. This has nothing to do with one’s goodness and skill. It is just life, evocative and evolving.” (222) Or as Macklemore puts it in "10,000 Hours", “The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint, the greats were great cause they paint a lot.”

We’re never already brave enough or skilled enough - we become so by doing the work: by taking risks, experimenting, failing, adjusting, trying again. We can’t know in advance what the outcome will be, because we hone our sense of who we are - of who we always were - at the same time as the life that really fits us takes shape around us. And along the way, most of us have to free ourselves more than once from the deadly red shoes. I was quite certain - twice! - that I’d follow my father into academia (I never did see myself as a bureaucrat, although it’s paid the bills) but I never escaped the knowing that home was somewhere else, somewhere with horses in it. I managed to ignore that knowing for 20 years, but it never went away: a small, insistent inner voice, whenever my mind was still enough to hear it.

The good news is that no matter how trapped we’ve been, how seduced by the pre-made life that was on offer, it’s always possible to take the shoes off. It’ll hurt (the girl in the story has to cut off her feet; I lost half a thumb and broke my arm, not at the same time) and it’ll be scary at times; you might even think it’s going to kill you (it won’t); and then once the worst is over it’ll take time - years –-to practise crafting your own life. Anyone who says differently is selling something. But the thing is to start:

Beyond desire and wishing, beyond the carefully reasoned methods we love to talk and scheme over, there is a simple door waiting for us to walk through. On the other side are new feet. Go there. Crawl there if need be. Stop talking and obsessing. Just do it. (251)

This is what my hand-made life looks like today. What about yours?

* Clarissa Pinkola-Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman (Rider, 2008).

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