From Iowa Essays: Talisman
Photo © 2009 Stan Brewer
By Amy Clark
This month’s issue of Discover magazine tells me “20 Things [I] Didn’t Know About Crystals.” For instance, that it was once believed that the Earth’s core was made of a crystal – 1,500 miles wide, to be exact. But I didn’t need Discover’s help to think of the quartz fragments as having mystical powers. I had Jim Henson, in The Dark Crystal, and an adolescent obsession with the occult to solidify my belief in the magical healing powers of stones. I lined them along my bookshelves, stowed them in my pockets, and wore them around my neck. In the bottom of an aging plastic jewelry box known as a Caboodle, a few of them still sit, lying dormant, attached to their fraying leather cords.
Something about the nearness of the fated year 2012 has me thinking about these talismans. And when I think of them, I am bombarded by images of old movies that I once loved: period pieces that took place in the middle ages, usually, and in which bundles of sage or other herbs were tucked under beds for protection, and amulets were hung around necks. Often, these amulets were gifts from a lover to a hero about to go to war – but just as often they passed from mother to daughter. Before a wedding, say, or the beginning of a new life – the birth of a child. When the daughter left the home she grew up in, she often went far away, outside of the mother’s circle of protection. Thus amulets were used to keep her safe, to keep her somehow under the matrilineal sphere of control.
A modern version of the amulet to ward against danger might be the saints medals that many of the Catholic faith still wear – the most famous being that of St. Christopher, patron of travelers, among other things. It might also take the form of a tattoo, or a boyfriend’s sweater. But in my own nondenominational family, the mass email message has come to serve as talisman instead.
Today’s talisman comes from my mother’s work email account to warn me of the dangers of driving in the rain. Perhaps remembering my near-miss interstate accident of four years ago in which I fractured my driver’s side window and nearly fractured my skull, my mother has decided that this Monday morning I need a reminder of the hazards that await me on that oh-so-treacherous road. The unknown narrator of the email asks me if I can recall the times when I click my wipers up to their highest speed, and the windshield is still a blur? I can, I nod to myself – but what of it? I squint, slow down, and drive on into the infinite abyss; relatively certain that I’ll make it home anyway.
Last week, the wired warning told a story of a young woman going through a drive-thru ATM late at night. Apparently, my mother had forgotten that I worked part-time as a waitress for cash and never used ATMs, let alone the kind that I drive through after the sun goes down. I was tempted to respond that I should be more concerned about vampires, shouldn’t I? The new Twilight installment is coming out soon, after all. But I kept my keyboard silent.
What my mother’s emails remind me of, however, is that we have become, in many ways, a society driven by fear. And it isn’t, clearly, that fear is new – for those old movies recall the days when the wolf was literally at the door, and all manner of beasts and diseases could kill a loved one in an instant. But perhaps it’s so pertinent now because we have finally mastered the food chain. In pursuit of life and liberty, we have neglected the power of our own shadows looming behind us, growing larger with the accumulating mass of unconfronted fears.
My mother knows no witchcraft. She does not know the names or recipes of herbs to concoct a remedy for the broken heart that keeps me from coming home, or the healing properties of stones that might restore my health or my faith. She cannot conjure up a spell against ruin, or place a talisman around my neck to keep the metaphorical wolves from knocking on my door. She has not the wisdom of lineages, of the ages, to pass on to me: mother to daughter.
She is, however, all too familiar with fear. And it slips in the cracks of our old house from every angle: loved ones lost to murder, car accidents, disease. Jobs lost, unemployment money running out. The diagnosis of a terminal illness. Medical bills piling up on the dining room table.
For some, fear is a paralyzing force, keeping them rooted to their couches, in front of their television sets, letting the set hammer home news of the new forms that fear can take, which in turn strengthens the fear that has already rendered the viewer immobile in the first place. For others, it breaks them down into the shadow selves of what they once were – drives them to act self-destructively instead of productively. And for still others, it holds them so tight that all the person can do, finally, is to break free. It leads them to a Saturday afternoon forum on their city capitol lawn, tentatively reaching out to their friends and neighbors who are tired of being paralyzed, as well. Or to put a pen to paper. Or to finally pick up the phone.
The rain is hitting the side of my house tonight like scattered birdseed. It’s a steady presence, not yet malevolent, but promising to be by morning – when the local news station is already predicting the first winter storm of the season. But I have my winter coat ready, and a new pair of gloves. I have water in my car, and a windshield scraper. And I have a talisman from my mother, the only protection she can give me from miles away as we both prepare in our own ways to either wait out or battle the storm. I open the message again, and read it through to its surprising end. Wear sunglasses, the email advises, to clear up your vision in a downpour. Amazingly, you can still see the drops on the windshield, but not the sheet of rain falling.
In the old model Forester I’m currently driving, called Darlene, there are compartments for almost anything one could think of. Including one embedded in the roof between the driver and passenger seats that are specifically designed for sunglasses. And even though I wholly believe the adage about ‘fear itself’ is true, I keep a talisman in that compartment anyway. We could all stand to see a little more clearly.
Amy Clark is a writer, educator and freelance editor, currently teaching at Des Moines Area Community College (go Bears!). Born and raised in Iowa, but having lived elsewhere in the Midwest and outside of it - Amy is currently exploring the concept of community in these short essays - what it means, and how it is forged by both people and place. She believes in the role of a writer as a conversation-starter, and hopes that some of her work will spark that. Please feel free to comment or email: email@example.com
Beautiful essay, Amy. I like the connections you draw here, between people and across time. And it makes me wish, a little bit, that I were Catholic and had that scapular around my neck. But then, instead, I have a silver bracelet with an ichthus on it. The "name" of the bracelet in the catalogue from which I purchased it? Security. I guess we all may have more talismans than we even realize; thanks for making us think about them.