by Joanna Gilar
One of the hardest things about living in the world we do is the question of how to embody responsibility for our surroundings and our others, while not being a killjoy. If we accept that there is a better way to live than in a world with its slow decimations of diversity, how can we bring that possibility into us, while still relaxing into the lives in which we exist? As Annie Proulx reflected in her National Book Award speech this month, we need to believe in happy endings. But today we exist in the strange tension of trying to kindle trust in their possibility, while struggling with the profligate instability that defines our world today.
I have been thinking this month about Baba Yaga, the goddess / crone / witch who haunts and hallows the dark forests of Russian fairy tales. For those of you as yet uninitiated to her tellings, Baba Yaga’s hut stands on chicken legs just beyond the darkest spaces between the trees, and is surrounded by a fence of human skulls. She rides around the forest in a pestle and mortar, devouring those who anger her, and yet, like a terrifying godmother, she gives you, if she sees fit, help, guidance, and skulls that turn your enemies to ash.
Speaking to Sharon Blackie about fairy tales for her ‘Voices of the Wells’ course last month, Baba Yaga rode bodily into our conversation. We talked about her in terms of the hospitable, and the domestic. In our culture somehow those who keep house, keep to the house, keep of the house – housewives, house-husbands, still seem – somehow – to carry the tint in our imaginations of passivity, quietude – the mild, biddable, acquiescent, the Victorian angel in the house. But Baba Yaga also keeps house. So I wonder whether we might have a conversation with this fearsome iron-toothed goddess about how to keep house – how to keep home – how to keep happy – in a rapidly breaking and transforming world.
What I’m thinking about specifically this year is that magnificent manifestation of house-keeping and feast-making that is Christmas, or any of the end-of-year feasts and festivals in which we partake. Christmas is our happy ending to the dark cold of the year, the time when the baby comes, the prophets gather, and the small bright light wakes up. But Christmas – like life – seems to be something done to us, today. People say to each other, at the end of November, ‘Are you ready for Christmas?’ as if the festival is a great bulldozer that will crush us unless we jump aboard. It seems as if, instead of being our pinnacle of hope, Christmas becomes yet another edifice of our fragility – in which our need to feel safe is used to keep us consuming, so that the lights stay burning and we don’t look out of the window at the snow-shattered, waiting dark.
This year I have a one-and-a-half-year-old son, and – it being his first properly aware Christmas – I am particularly susceptible to questions about how to make it magic. But I am constantly being taken aback by how difficult as a mother I find this negotiation between honesty and joy. Take toys, for example. Not happy endings so much as happy mendings – they are there to make the world safe, friendly, and cuddly. When Arun was 9 months old, I bought him a beautiful rocking elephant. He looked at it very carefully – Arun looks at most things very carefully – and then crawled around to its front, where he began stroking its forehead, just in the way we have taught him to approach our two dogs. And suddenly and unexpectedly I felt my heart breaking, as I wondered at this bizarre world I have brought him into, where the principle others with whom he is encouraged to bond are made of fabric and polished wood.
Every Christmas, in the quest for happy endings and happy mendings, we buy and we consume too much. For our children, ironically, we buy cuddly imitations of others, in moulded plastic and fluffy fabric, in rags and wool and cotton, on plastic plates and rubber rings, on pyjamas, bottles, sweaters and socks. And each imitation takes a little bit of the world away from the real others, and less breathing space away from the possibility of their own happy endings. So when my son unwraps and sees something to cuddle, he trusts the promise I am making him that the world is rich and wild, while in truth that very promise is a method of its own breaking.
I don’t know how to resolve these tensions. My son is one and a half, and deserves stories read to him (and toys cuddled by him) in which other beings enchant the earth and seem to make it safe. And yet – there is a part of me that wants to speak with fierce fire, for all our small ones to whom we make these breaking promises. And I wonder where that fierce fire is, and how to bring it through, and embody it, rather than that of a tense and harried homemaker, seesawing between anger, acquiescence, and exhaustion.
In truth, there is that fierce fire in all of us who conjure the spinning huts of being home, and one of her changeable faces is Baba Yaga. So my invitation to all of us this year is to invite this ancient Russian hag to our feasts. Baba Yaga knows about happy endings but also about getting there honestly. She knows what it takes to hold house in the midst of the dark woods. She is the gatekeeper, who knows how to watch over our young ones when they reach the age of reaching beyond our fraying promises, and seek to make that great magic of turning themselves into themselves.
What if, as we find ourselves propelled into the flurrying labyrinth of festivities this year, we invoke her to help us host our own spaces? And if people ask us why we are not bending into flurries we do not wish to bend into, what if we look them in the eye and say with her voice:
‘Our house is not in order. This is my offering towards joy in the disordered dark.’