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Women Who Run With the Wolves – through treacle to transformation

Women Who Run With The Wolves : Clarissa Pinkola Estes ...

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman was bought for me by my best friend, a wild woman I love like no other, who now lives on the opposite side of the world. She loves this book so I assumed I would too – plus there’s a quote on the front from Maya Angelou that says, “Everyone who can read should read this book” which is quite the recommendation. I mean, Maya Angelou. All in all, I had high hopes for it, and I took it down from my shelf at a really bad time in my life when I hoped it would have some answers for me.

It’s a 500-page beast of a book so requires some real commitment, especially as it’s much more academic than I expected. I started it when I was struggling in general so that might have something to do with it, but I can’t lie, there were huge parts of this that were really hard work for me. I’m an English Literature graduate and a non-fiction editor by profession so I think of myself as a pretty competent reader but sometimes I felt like I was wading through treacle with this book. It’s hugely well and widely reviewed though so there must be plenty of people who feel differently.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés is an academic, a senior Jungian psychologist (as well as an award-winning poet and cantadora or Latina story-keeper) and so it makes sense that she approaches the book from that standpoint, but an accessible self-help or lifestyle book this is not. It requires patience, study and grit – or at least it did for me, but I’m glad I read it, and I suspect it’s probably one of those books whose true worth comes to you later down the line, rather than in one satisfying hit at the time of reading. I saw one Amazon reviewer say that they bought it in 1994 and finished it in 2004, which they considered an enjoyable reading pace for it. They likened it to a bible rather than a regular book and I think there’s probably something in that.

Estés examines folk stories from all over the world with some interesting analysis. My favourite was “Sealskin, Soulskin”, about a lonely man who takes a seal-woman’s pelt hostage in order to get her to marry him. He says after seven summers she can choose to stay or go, and if she goes he will give her back her pelt, but in the end he is too insecure to return the pelt in case she leaves him. She’s desolate, because she has started to dry out and crack from the inside without her pelt. Their son, Ooruk, sneaks his mother the pelt though and with the seal-woman’s health restored they take a journey to the seal kingdom. Ooruk eventually becomes a translator between the seal (soul) and human (ego) worlds. Another interesting story, “The Red Shoes”, says a lot of about addiction and what Estés calls “instinct-injured women” going after facsimiles of happiness.

As well as the folk-story analysis, Estés deconstructs women’s lives in what at times is a fascinating way. She has a lot to say about the interaction of the soul and the ego, the importance of effective rebellion, dealing with anger, grief and forgiveness, and indeed having tolerance for every emotion, which I liked, in the face of the trend for relentless positive thinking.

She has insightful commentary on body image and the patriarchy (and the idea of the body as a practical, useful and soulful thing), survival (becoming strong without becoming cold) and the compensatory nature of dreams.

But one of the biggest things I got out of this book is what Estés says about the life/death/life nature, She talks about how modern culture has tried to write death out of the story of life, or put it only at the end, whereas the reality is that death is a part of life and in itself gives birth to new life. She stresses that our lives are cyclical, not linear, and that if we give up trying to always “make the magic last” we will lead fuller, less fearful lives. Death is a part, and not only or always an end, of lives and relationships.

Throughout this book, Estés also has a lot to say about creativity, about how creating is an essential part of the wild woman’s life, and how we shouldn’t cheat ourselves by making excuses about not having time or by “sneaking a life” only in between other more pressing mundane tasks. I think she’s right, and her book gave me the push I needed to carve out more time in my own life for creative stuff (including finally learning how to properly play the guitar).

Estés says in the book that, “Deep in the wintry parts of our minds, we are hardy stock and know there is no such thing as a work-free transformation”. She’s surely right, and this book is nothing if not proof of it.

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Filed under folktales, non fiction, poetry