I’m going through a bit of a weird time at the moment. I’ve had to stop watching the news (again) because of Brexit causing my already highly-strung brain to go into overdrive. I’m on the point of stockpiling tinned tomato cans in secret because Benn, probably quite rightly, refuses to indulge my inner survivalist thought that society is on the brink of chaos.
I’ve also started writing something related to my teenage years, which has led to me revisiting that period of my life. This is not fun. I know most people feel that they were outsiders during this point in their life, but I really, really was. Ostracised at school for most of my time there, deeply unhappy at home in an environment that was at times turbulent and always poor, I found solace in books and was attracted to all things ‘other’.
Obviously as this was the mid-1990s, I found The Craft. This came to me via a huge obsession with The X-Files when I was 12 and a dedicated readership of, amongst other things, The Fortean Times. The downside was that I was convinced we were all going to be dead of ebola by the year 2000. The upside (?) was that I was very open to learning about the occult. I babysat for a woman called Sandra, who gave me a pack of tarot cards and another of past life cards. I bought crystals and burnt incense. I frequented the hippy shops in Leeds and, later on holiday, Brighton. I devoured ‘spell books’ and learnt about wicca. So far, so 1990s teenage girl.
I’d always had a spiritual element to me. We were sort-of church goers at points in my childhood, Church of England kids brought up by a lapsed Catholic (my favourite joke about this is that I got all of the guilt and none of the pageantry of Catholicism, at least until I went to Catholic sixth form college. Spoiler: I loved it there.) I was also deeply unhappy and desperate to escape a home that was, at times, toxic. The Wiccan thing, even though I doubt I truly believed in it, appealed to me. Be nice to the environment; say aloud what you want- an important thing during a time when you feel you may not have a voice.
And I tell you what: I became bloody good at reading the tarot, despite not ever properly learning to read them according to the book. I had a deal with my hairdresser that I’d read her cards for my hair being done. I don’t think I paid for my haircuts for about three years. She once interpreted something I said as relating to a hugely traumatic event that had happened to her on holiday. One time, I was excused from lessons for a whole day to read the cards of students and staff at my secondary school, in order to raise money for Comic Relief. I was 15.
Was I psychic? Nope. I’m pleased I wasn’t, although I did wonder if I was at the time. My anxiety was already bad enough without knowing what was going to happen to everyone. I just think I was very, very good at reading people and my emotional intelligence saved the day. But I liked feeling that I was helping, or giving people information they wanted to hear. I could never ‘read’ my own cards and the one time I did have them read, the woman told me I’d never end up with my then boyfriend as, and I quote, I was ‘too cosmopolitan’ for him. Having once seen his Facebook profile about five years ago, I agree.
I eventually grew up and out of all the occult stuff. I think going to uni, sort of finding a partial escape, as well as having a huge depression break over me ended it all. I stopped believing in tarot and ghosts and God. Science made everything make sense. If anyone asked my religion, I’d reply with ‘cheerfully agnostic’. I answer my son’s fervent questions about religion respectfully and allow him to decide what he believes.
But now my anxiety is back and witchcraft is de rigeur again (witches, like fashion, apparently come around, in a cycle). I read an article in the Guardian about how social anxiety about Trump and Brexit is causing women to be attracted back to the rituals associated with being a witch. You can buy kawaii tarot cards in Urban Outfitters for fifteen quid- totally at odds with the reverence the cards had traditionally been treated with.
But I get it. I get this desire, by women, to take back control of the narrative, in a world where it often feels like we’re hurtling towards The Handmaid’s Tale, where the strength of our female ancestors, with their links to long-forgotten rituals feels empowering. Wise women were the glue that held together rural communities, that knew which plants did what. I reflected on this the other day when I found myself buying a copy of Alys Fowler’s A Modern Herbal because my brain was convinced the NHS would shortly be going to hell in a handcart. I’m back on the St John’s Wort I first took as a student because the GP would not give me anti-depressants because I was ‘too young’. There’s something to be said for rediscovering the element of the wise woman, even if we can’t really tell the future with a deck of cards, or cure a migraine with a lump of amethyst, no matter how pretty it is.
I feel like this is a prevailing mood because we’re in a weird place that our ancestors might recognise. We’re living through something that potentially could be terrifying and shattering, but we’re expected to carry on as if nothing is happening. The antics of a few politicians will affect all of us- but unless there’s an election, what can we do? So we turn to our gardens, our cards, our crystals, because they make us feel powerful, like we have a say in the universe. And even if there’s nothing really in it, that feeling of empowerment is important.