Whether you call them totems, tokens, tools, or talismans, our symbols and the stories we attach to them make us who we are.
My roommate and I like to pretend we are witches, though when I ask her why she wishes she were a witch, she says she does not know.
“When I learned about witches, it was the first time I saw a woman be a badass… It’s just magic, you know?” She thinks a moment. “Being able to affect the world in a bigger way.”
And witches are badass — powerful, capable of both good and evil, and excitingly counter-cultural. Women have been accused of witchcraft to remove them from politics, punish them for transgression, or put them in their place. Any woman which society thought worthy of its fear could be labeled a witch, and it’s said that well-behaved women rarely make history.
But I am an empiricist. I could not embrace Wicca or any other religion predicated on blind faith. I knew I would have to make my totems abstractly referential, at best, if their imagined power were to comfortably coexist with my more skeptical tendencies. Even an atheist can have a lucky pair of socks.
I keep few tokens, and I avoid attaching others’ meanings to them when I can. Two earrings with spirals in them like rolling ocean waves — good luck to the traveler, I decide, and a nice weight to keep me grounded. A ring with three elephants, perhaps representing my mother, sister, and me, or good luck, given my family’s history in South East Asia. A second ring, of obsidian, like the enormous black stone my father should probably not have borrowed from that national park. I wear a leather jacket that reminds me of Buffy, my childhood hero, and when I wear all these together I feel like a more confident woman. Lastly, come the boots, heavy, practical, so loved that I recently resoled them. I have walked Europe in these boots, and they were my first large purchase with my own money.
I have my spells, too. I’ve trapped the occasional demon in a page, and I have collected words over the years, words I sometimes remind myself of on paper or on skin. I’ve been trying to remember what I wrote on my arm earlier this week for a day and a half. Perhaps Rilke’s “Live the questions now,” the second most comforting quotation I’ve ever heard.
But good magic can lose its power, and we must be vigilant against the bad. There are things I must hide from myself to be happy, the preserved bones of mammoth losses — a page in the center of a book of vignettes, or a beaten black wallet hidden in a particularly dangerous silver box. Things too private to be disposed of with anything but fire, and too powerful for me to light a match. We must watch what we carry.
We must also live our symbols, rather than escaping into them. The best prayer is a proffered hand, a binding rather than a delegation. Most of my talismans now are protective of my identity, but our magic must be more than that, something which makes us able to, as my roommate said, “affect the world in a bigger way.” Be it your father’s watch, a necklace of three rings, or the book whose words struck you like an electric current, we all have our tools, our reminders, our magic spells for choosing who we wish to be.