I was withering in the suburban dead space between New York City and Philadelphia when I first learned of the wild woman archetype, courtesy of Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s Women Who Run With the Wolves. Something was wrong with me, deeply wrong, and my gut told me this book had the answer. The wild woman of Estes’s compilation knew how to nurture the garden of the self so she could share the fruits of those labors without depleting her fertile soil and going fallow. I longed for that vibrant inner and outer life, to connect with my inner wild woman so she could come into her own.
I was the living dead. My advanced degree felt meaningless. My job had dimmed my inner light and stolen my breath. Estes said, if I could gather the bones from my past and sing over them, muscles and organs would spring forth. My four-footed, wild self would become wrapped in new flesh, grow a tawny, full coat, and come trotting along beside me. But how would I know which bones to pick up? I called to my imagination a feral godmother, a personal Baba Yaga whose christening gifts were a rib plucked from her side and a promise to check on me from time to time. If I could pinpoint her cameos in my past, perhaps I would know what to reclaim.
At first, I floundered in the dusk of my memory. Movement flickered around my peripheral vision—perhaps she was dancing just then—but that could have been a sparrow. A scream pierced the night—perhaps she was singing to me—but that may have been the fox. Shine your light directly at her, and you won’t see her embodied. Pinning her down was like trying to see wind. But watch how the leaves tumble, and you’ll know the wind’s current form.
Look for the whirling artifacts the feral godmother casts aside, as clutches others to her chest, and occasionally sweeps new ones into her arms. This mosaic approximates her form and direction—past, present, and future.
I remembered my mother showing me the cast-off bridle used to harness the wild woman’s powers and launch men into the bounty of the workplace. My grandfather sent my uncle to college but said sending daughters was a waste. My mother once scored higher on an insurance underwriter’s test than a male counterpart, then had to train him so he could get the promotion. When she told these stories, I could feel the worn leather in my hands, the bit which ground down the wild woman’s teeth. Don’t even try it on, my mother would say, don’t you dare. In hanging up the sweat-soaked reins, a clue — the feral godmother’s tracks in the sand.
I’d seen those tracks before. In the high school choir room where I sang for two hours each day—see the sheet music spinning around her? In the art room where I used charcoal to paint a city I hadn’t visited—see the paper rolled up in her satchel? There were more. Woven into banter with friends who belonged in the theater; blotted in the ink in my journals; leading from a tent to the lake’s edge on camping trips. Any time I expressed my true nature or felt seen, her footprints were there.
My feral godmother mostly disappeared during college. I ignored my heart and focused on using my head to avoid the unwanted forms of captivity which took women years to escape. Marry the wrong person; choose a dead-end career; get stuck in the wrong place. Driven by fear of man-made paths to kennels my mother warned me about, I ignored forms of self-expression that didn’t guarantee financial independence. The odd book on how to remember dreams or how to nurture the chakras would occasionally find its way to my shelves, only to sit unread. I started forgetting how to breathe.
Even so, a flash of sequins would catch my attention and lead me deep into the nighttime jungles of plastic Orlando, a young city grown out of the swamp and nearly bursting with the kind of leftover imagination you couldn’t commercialize. I would find my way underground into those pockets the feral godmother visited and let the drums seep into my bones like another heartbeat, animated by musical tapestries woven together on the spot. Once, I found her fake ID on the ground and put it in my pocket, thinking she might want it back, not recognizing it for the relic it was.
Acceptance letters to graduate school invited me to leave, and in between the lines she whispered I had been building my kennel for the wrong person and it was time to go. That truth spawned an inner earthquake and my knees buckled. She lowered me to the floor to cry her a river she could row away on; she speaks truth but does not linger to debate it.
Asheville and Carrboro were thick with her earthy scent of sandalwood, so strong I thought I might find her dancing barefoot at the folk festival, but I missed her turn for turn. Even so, I saw my mother’s dream for my career fulfilled. And I did find a worthy partner there, someone who would help me find joy again and encourage me to find my own way.
We settled into cookie-cutter suburbs because I’d given no thought to what I needed in my outer environment to keep my inner world whole. I have to think my feral godmother left the Estes book for me when she stopped by a neighbor’s house during childbirth, the only time she visited that barren land. I felt surrounded by a neighborhood of dusty parental moths circling little children-flames, trying to light their own dead wicks. I was blind to any god sisters who may have been there.
Three years of puzzling over what I now know was simply the mismatch between who I was versus where I was, I screamed a primal scream to the sky. The feral godmother sent an improv troupe to an office park where they found me desiccated, barely breathing. The troupe played, showering the room with their vulnerability, the kind which makes you laugh and cry. They showed me how thirsty I was to create, to explore, to see and be seen, to become, and to know my true self so I could support and be supported by communities where I might belong.
As the troupe left to the south, I saw a glint of moonlight on metal, a trowel hung at the feral godmother’s side. A cape of gnarled roots trailed behind her, some unearthed with care, others ripped out with brute force because she would not stay rooted where she could not grow.
I dragged myself and the bones collected from my childhood, raw and wrecked, into the womb of the city, where the feral godmother is ever-present. Soaking in the amniotic fluid, I began to rehydrate, first with colors and music, since my words weren’t yet authentic. Hours behind canvases learning to see the motion in still life. Sitting in quiet rooms breathing collectively, lungs developing to speak truth from within. While I didn’t literally sing over the bones from my past, all the restorative work I was doing had the same effect, reconstituting my wild self, a feral pup nipping at my heels with excitement. My eyes closed, I could feel her sitting next to me at last: feral godmother, expressionist.
My eyes opened, and I found her tinderbox in my lap with directions to the forest; this was an artifact she meant for me to return to her. I used the tinderbox to build a bonfire in a clearing just outside my comfort zone, west of Philadelphia before the mountains get steep and the creatures too hungry.
Glowing eyes shone out of the darkness, migrating closer to the flames, my godsisters revealed. We said and meant our namastes. We passed the tinderbox back to my feral godmother, the collective, who grows alongside us when we are true to ourselves. We shared our painted canvases, and I found my authentic words. Together our years and our scars formed a patchwork of mistakes and an endless fountain of wisdom. Together we took the best constructs of society and blended them with sharpened feminine instincts, learning to balance giving our power with growing it. Eyes up, chakras blazing, we helped each other set boundaries in the world so we could offer healthy support. Together we lit the caves and mountains we chose to explore.