“The Spinster’s Almanac”: Poetic Advice for Finding Your Way in the World -The Toast

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Please email all questions you would like poetry to answer to advice@the-toast.net, with “Spinster’s Almanac” in the subject line.

Dear Spinster,

I’m moving out of my family’s home this week. I’m moving to the twin city of my hometown for the summer before starting college across the country in the fall. I have always been an “independent” person; I grew up in a single-parent household with few monetary or material resources, and I’ve held various jobs since I was fifteen and have saved more than a bit of money.

I’ve felt trapped in this town since we moved here years ago, and now that I’m leaving, I feel equally trapped and more scared than I probably should be. I’ve never really been happy here and I have no reason to stay other than fear, but my fear of failure on my own is equal to my fear of stasis here.

I don’t have many supportive friends to rely on or a stable family to fall back onto, but now that I’ll be truly alone, I need something to quell my anxiety enough to allow me to try, no matter what. How can I build a strong base for my life amidst the odds, and remain optimistic? How can I transfer my emotional reactions to practical action?

Reader, I feel your longing in this letter, so keenly, for a sense of belonging and stability in your next life after your years as an outsider. Community can be utterly mystifying to someone used to relying on themselves, to never resting entirely easy. Do you feel yourself to be marked in some invisible fashion? Do you worry about learning to forge the tools to stand on your own? You have money and a desire to make a life for yourself, and that is an excellent start. But what else?

Here is a poem by Ansel Elkins to fold up and keep in your pocket, to remind you of how you have survived already: “The Girl with Antlers.” Elkins writes an intense and sensitive parable of an outsider left to find her way in the world, marked and made to feel apart. She starts bluntly:

I tore myself out of my own mother’s womb. 
There was no other way to arrive in this world. 
A terrified midwife named me Monster 
and left me in the pine woods with only the moon.

It’s dramatic, directness almost verging on rage. The way, I think, a lot of people feel about circumstances that isolate them, particularly when they’re young. She emphasizes the narrator’s need to do things herself from her literal birth, the discomfort she prompted, her abandonment. It’s classic fairy tale horror, but with the Beast as the heroine.

Your letter, by contrast, is pragmatic and without self-pity. You’ve done the hard material work to keep yourself going, to set your life out solidly. You’ve worked hard, you’ve made plans. Elkins’ narrator has had to do the same.

In a dream, my mother came to me and said
if I was to survive
I must find joy within my own wild self.

When I awoke I was alone in solitude’s blue woods.

There are a hundred self-improvement books that will yammer on about the importance of loving yourself before you can love others, which I personally think is a bit crap, but joy is something a little different. Joy can look like being able to crack open a bottle of wine and a fat novel when Friday night offers no invitations, or it can mean gathering the self-possession to take your solitary self out into the world, to ballroom dance classes, to a student advocacy group, to campus radio. You can fill your blue woods with activities that feel good, that excite you, where it’s easier to form bonds with others. You can start small. One kindred classmate, one section-mate from choir practice. You asked me about how to channel your emotional reactions into practical action. I would suggest, rather than focusing on loving yourself perfectly or moulding yourself in a life that chafes, build yourself a life—habits, hobbies, a home—that you feel good in, both comforting and striving toward the friends, the job, the art, the adventure that you want out of this whirlwind of change.

Elkins’ narrator describes a woman who “found me and took me to her mountain home / high at the end of an abandoned logging road.” They spend the winter by the fire, the woman reading myths and watching the shadows of the narrator’s antlers in the firelight. It’s a fallow moment in the poem, the narrator literally growing into adulthood in quiet companionship, and the woman watching her. Are the shadows and the Greek myths a deliberate allusion to Plato’s Cave? I’m not sure, but it works with Elkins’ parable: the narrator’s abandonment, isolation, and misunderstanding by her caretaker are failures of the imagination and kindness of those around her. This is useful to remember when building a new life feels tough or isolating. That you’re trying is enough, dear reader. If you can accept kindness, sit companionably, be a gracious guest, or commit to learning when these might not come naturally, you have the tools to build community with those who are similarly kind and committed.

This doesn’t mean you won’t fuck up, or that your acquaintances won’t, especially at first. For all her kindnesses, the narrator’s guardian woman is not particularly sensitive:

The woman was worried when I would not wear dresses.
I walked naked through the woods.
She hung the wash from my head
on hot summer days when I sat in the sun to read.

Often when one grows up in some way that will later lead to them being marked or different in some social way—growing up poor, or sick, or queer, or without living married heterosexual parents—people will react in inappropriate ways. It’s useful to have a game plan here. Will you walk naked through the woods, gorgeously shameless in your wounds and strengths and experiences while others self-identify their missteps, will you learn bridges, or will you develop ways to talk about your friends’ and colleagues’ insensitivities. Elkins’ narrator is direct: “The woman grew worried when I would not shed / my crown with the seasons as the whitetails did. / ‘But I am not a whitetail,’ I said.” The description is understated but repeatedly Elkins’ reiterates her narrator’s sense of self that refuses ignorant attempts at assimilating her.

Elkins allows us to see the girl with antlers to grow up, describes her:

suddenly changed in the mirror.
My many-pronged crown had grown
into a wildness all its own;
highly stylized, the bright
anarchic antlers were majestic to my eye.

She doesn’t lose her antlers, she is not transformed into a pretty princess as a reward for humble suffering in difference, but instead she can see her antlers as a mark of royalty, both stylized and anarchic. One could read this as an ugly duckling story, except that nothing fundamental changes about the narrator, except for her conception of her antlers. Elkins’ word choice—wildness, anarchic—emphasize her ability to grow into her identity rather than assimilate. Easier said than done, but a good model, and a useful reminder.

I want to encourage you not to feel as though you have to change everything about your tough and tender self in order to build your new life at school. Not for moneyed snobs or insensitive questions. You can give yourself space to let your particular self flourish. You don’t need to be palatable or easily understood. People will see tough tenderness in you, as the narrator’s woman-guardian finally does: “The woman saw me and smiled. ‘What you are I cannot say, / but nature has created you. / You are fearfully and wonderfully made.’”

Dear reader, your independence and self-reliance are wonderfully made. Others may recognize this immediately, or may need time, but if you allow your desire to loose yourself from your stasis and build that firm base to be a guide rather than a one-shot mandate, you can find a way. You can see all the strength and understanding you’ve built up as a foundation that can serve you well, that can reach out to others who have been lonely or broke or afraid. The guardian-woman’s words become an echoing talisman for the narrator, who goes into the woods to find her reflection in a lake: “I saw my reflection on the water, / I touched my face. / You are fearfully and wonderfully made.”

I hope Elkins can be a talisman for you, for all of us who are compelled to go out into the world, strange and underprepared, but with that kernel of self-possession we hope to grow, blazing about the head like an anarchic crown.

Marika Prokosh is a writer from Winnipeg, Canada. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Fire, Existere, Rip/Torn and at The Toast. She reads, writes, and eats in an old blue house, and tweets about books and cooking mishaps.

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