It happened on a Saturday: I picked up A Calendar Is a Snakeskin by Kristine Langley Mahler, and when I put it down the next day (taking breaks only to tend to my children’s pleas for snacks and games; I’m a slow reader), awe filled me. This slim book, which clocks in at a mere 103 pages, is packed with hope, history, the natural world, and self-reckoning, among other things; the layers of narrative excavate ideas of home, time, relationships, change. Full of gorgeous details and strange questions—my favorite: “Am I holding a chunk of moon that will dissolve into a bear?”—A Calendar Is a Snakeskin offers up a personal and provocative vision of how to “read the signs.”    

Kristine and I connected via email in early March to discuss ghosts, eclipses, homecoming, and writing about family, embracing everyday magic, and more.

Sara Rauch: There are so many layers of time and history present in your new book, A Calendar Is a Snakeskin, which is partly personal excavation and partly question-full embrace of (among other things) your encounters with nature, divination, and astrology, your relationship with your siblings, what home means to you, the expectations of motherhood, the act of writing, and more. What was your experience of weaving together all these elements? Did you know the narrative would be so expansive in its initial stages?

Kristine Langley Mahler: All I knew was that these symbols and images kept occurring and recurring around me and, as a longtime collector and dissector of meaning through essaying about my experiences, I knew I needed to catalog them and pay attention because I could tell something seismic was happening. I didn’t know what it was yet or what the images meant to tell me, however. Weaving them together and watching how the layers interacted with each other—sometimes in ways I didn’t even see at this time—into Snakeskin was another form of understanding how intensely that year changed me!

I’m really interested in your approach to writing about “woo-woo” things like astrology and divination in a down-to-earth way—was this a purposeful choice, or is it your personality showing through, or maybe both?

Oh, that’s definitely my personality coming through by being willing to poke at my very earnest attempts to “make meaning” about the woo-wooiest of practices I kept. But I think that, more than laughing at myself (my insistence on identifying my chunk of milky quartz as TRULY MILKY QUARTZ by trusting Google results, for example), I am humbled by how little I know. There are so many astrologers and tarot card readers and alternative modality practitioners who have put so, so many more hours into understanding the woo than I have, and I suppose that my tone, in Snakeskin, is (hopefully) intentionally simplifying explanations because that entry-level is exactly where I was.

Kristine’s altar with the milky quartz positioned roughly center.

The three sections of the book are titled “Ghostwatch,” “Ghostchoke,” and “Ghostheart.” I remember reading an early draft of the section that became “Ghostchoke,” where you were amending a bunch of mundane words with “ghost,” producing this kind of eerie but accessible presence of extra-mundane forces. Will you talk a little about how this transmutation of words came about and how it informed the book overall?

I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but I have been an inveterate ghost-hater my whole life. Ghosts have never thrilled me, they have terrified me. I tried to avoid scary movies (an accidental viewing of the cupboard scene in The Sixth Sense STILL MAKES ME AFRAID TO GO IN MY KITCHEN SOMETIMES). I’ve always wanted to keep them as far away from me as possible.

But I think that I began, as I wrote in “Ghostchoke,” “appending the word ‘ghost’ to every noun” because I was seeing ghosts in everything. And I don’t just mean official “ghosts”—I mean seeing the past in the present, seeing the unfinished other-half of an experience that never got to completion, seeing those concurrent lives of mine that it’d always consoled me to think were happening in an alternate dimension. I thought a lot about those three fears that became the titles of Snakeskin’s sections—the fears I watched for, the fears that made me choke, and the fears of my heart. I needed to hug the word representing my fears (ghost) against the fears themselves to make them both visible to me.

A Calendar is a Snakeskin is your second book, and it differs from your first book (Curing Season: Artifacts) in that it’s set much closer to the present. Did you find writing about events that occurred recently more challenging or less? 

It was much harder to write about the events of Snakeskin. I’d had a lot of years to process Curing Season. The essays in Curing Season look at the effects of my adolescence, a time in my life I’d been studying, well, basically ever since! Snakeskin, on the other hand, feels somewhat meta to me because it’s a book trying to make sense of how I tried to make sense of things. For Snakeskin, I didn’t have the luxury of reexamining a four-year period for another twenty years (as I did with Curing Season). And yet I was drawn to writing Snakeskin in a way that reflected the urgency of that year. I knew that if I sat and analyzed for years, rewriting and editing, the book wouldn’t be reflective of the experience of that year itself: filled with “gong moments” and gut punches and eyes-widening-as-the-meaning-hits.

So much of the book is about the process of paying attention. You have a great line, where you question some of the synchronicities you’re seeing play out: “I do wonder if it’s just attention more than magic.” Which made me think of the Roald Dahl quote, “Above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” How did writing A Calendar Is a Snakeskin change the way you approach everyday magic? How are you reconciling the signs since?

Writing Snakeskin taught me to remain open to the world around me—honestly, a pretty important trait for any memoirist—and to allow meanings to shift. I’ve seen fewer snakes since the year depicted in Snakeskin, but more feathers. I take that as a sign that the transformations I needed have slowed down, but that messages are still arriving, reminding me to continue to pay attention.

Do you keep a journal? And do you consult it when writing essays?

I do keep a journal—though rather erratically—and I frequently consult it when I sit down to write because my journal is the journal of my id: I really only write about my dreams. When I’m in Peak Writer Flow, I journal every morning, writing the dream fragments that stay with me—there’s a whole ritual and if it gets gunked up at all, I lose them. Gotta be dark out still, can’t be anyone else awake, can’t get tea or breakfast yet. I light a candle and sit in my dining room and write what I can remember before the sun comes all the way up. I come back to my journal because I do believe my dreams are the source of many experiences I’m still internally processing that I haven’t been ready to write about . . . yet. I type my entries up a few times a year, and I’m always surprised by what I’ve revealed to myself months later.

I dread this question when people ask it of me, but it is perhaps an inevitable one when writing deeply personal nonfiction: how has your family reacted (if at all) to A Calendar Is a Snakeskin? And maybe going a step further, have their reactions changed anything about how/what you are currently writing?

The short version is that, for decades to come, I’ll be processing my siblings’ reactions to the sheer presence of Snakeskin in the world, because their reactions were so unexpected and brought up ghosts I didn’t even know existed. Snakeskin is a book about my own fears and vulnerabilities and how I was trying to understand them while keeping them away from the people I loved. I was trying to let in the love that I knew would dissolve my fears and, in the meantime, also trying to protect my loved ones from seeing the height of my hysteria by not showing that hysteria to them as I processed through to the other side. My siblings didn’t see the book that way.

Because the two concurrent projects I’m working on are (no surprise) going deeper into my lifelong themes (family, ancestry, and home), I’m taking a lot more time with the writing and editing than I did with Snakeskin because the content is extremely delicate and I want to ensure that I’m seeing as 360 as I can.

One of the biggest influences on time in this book is the eclipse season of 2018–2020, which also marked the end of a nodal return in your astrological birth chart, which happens only every nineteen years, and you chronicle the moment as a kind of homecoming. Homecoming is double-edged, though (as it often is in your work!), because the work of turning back, of reassessing past selves, requires confronting things that may have remained hidden for good reason. You write: “I was afraid that I’d been certain I knew my future but that I had been wrong about myself.” Has probing this personal history altered how you live your life forward?

I think I’m always writing toward that fear: that I either don’t know myself or have been wrong about what has actually shaped me into the person I am. That eclipse season was a real working over—like dough after its first rise, you think you’re done, but nope, you’ve got to punch it back down and let it rise again! Eclipse seasons are always opportunities—that’s how I see them, now—to focus on the changes you either need to make or are already occurring in two areas of your life. An astrological chart is like an extended, much more significant progenitor of Zig Ziglar’s Wheel of Life: the astrological houses mark twelve areas of our lives. The 2018–2020 eclipses in Snakeskin were the ending of the eclipse cycle through my fourth and tenth houses (home/ancestry and career/public roles), and the beginning of the eclipse cycles in my third and ninth houses (SIBLINGS and PUBLISHING; a little too on the nose, but that’s the universe for you).

To bring it back to your question about whether probing my history has altered how I live my life—I would just say that my life is centered around probing my history; that my fear that I’ve been wrong about what has shaped me into myself is what drives me to reexamine; that the eclipses help direct me to see what areas might be ready for that reexamination.

Sara Rauch is the author of What Shines from It: Stories and XO. She has written for the LA Review of Books, Lambda Literary, Bustle, WBUR, The Rumpus, and more. She lives in Massachusetts with her family.

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