What did Hillary Clinton wish she could have said during the campaign? I have been repeatedly rereading Rebecca Traister’s poignant, incisive New York Magazine piece “Inside Hillary Clinton’s Surreal Post-Election Life” partly because it answers this very question. I posted a link to the piece on my facebook page, adding: “I am still heartbroken at Hillary’s loss. If I wish one thing, it’s that during the second debate she had, as she told Traister she wished she could, have called Trump out for stalking behind her on the stage. We all watched it… I wish there was a way to light a candle and say a spell and cover my head and burn something and have it WORK.”
After I got a bunch of likes and comments on this post, I felt a little better, even though those smiling faces didn’t do anything. Comments and likes on social media have as much value as a wish, unless you’re a child or an adolescent girl and/or a character in a fairy tale. My six-year-old daughter believes in wishes and also the Tooth Fairy. Since the election, she has repeatedly told me, “I wish Donald Trump could stop being president.” I smile ruefully and agree.
It’s not good to feel as if my six year old and I have the same amount of actual power.
Wishes and the magic beings that make them come true – witches, genies, and fairy godmothers – are tools and inventions of the powerless. As are potions and poultices and secret recipes. In the fairy stories, women (and other powerless people) tend to make the wishes and grant the wishes and take away the wishes. It’s all women’s work, but worse even than conventional women’s work, because wishes are fictional.
I have listened to the soundtrack for Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods approximately eight million times in the last year because Clara got really into the movie, and because we are an all-singin’ all-dancin’ family, and my husband is a Sondheim freak (and composer himself). In other words: we have the sheet music and an upright Yamaha piano to play it on. The phrase “I wish” is repeated throughout Into the Woods – it’s a trope. The Baker and his Wife, Red Riding Hood, Jack and his Mother, Cinderella and her Stepmother – they all begin the show by singing those words, their requests: to go to a festival, for a cow “full of milk,” for a loaf of bread, for a child. Then the Witch appears to grant their wishes with conditions, and soon enough it all goes to shit.
At the end of the show, the Ensemble sings, “Careful the wish you make, wishes are children. Careful the path they take – wishes come true, not free… Into the woods but not too fast or what you wish you lose at last.” In other words: your wish comes with conditions; you bought it, so now it’s yours to break.
In one of my other pop culture bibles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (stay with me), Anya, when she’s a Vengeance Demon, brings about a Hellish alternate universe when Cordelia wishes that “Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale.” Anya loses her powers over this wish, and we almost forget the power of wishing, until, three seasons later, her Vengeance Demon BFF Halfrek comes to Sunnydale herself to be in Anya’s wedding (which does not go well). While Halfrek – Hallie – is there she takes advantage of Buffy’s sister Dawn’s own desire for something different. “I wish people would stop leaving,” Dawn tells Halfrek, who’s posing as a school guidance counselor. “It is DONE,” Halfrek says, and goes all veiny and her magic necklace glows. Of course, that wish too is a disaster and eventually Halfrek has to come and undo it because if she doesn’t she would have to stay locked in Buffy’s house with all the characters for eternity.
Are the messages of these stories, “Don’t wish? It doesn’t get you what you want, even if the magic works”? I’m Jewish, so the answer is both yes and no. And I have more quotes.
I could go on with this list: Every character Maurice Sendak ever wrote wishes and then goes on a journey and – because it’s children’s literature – comes home to dinner “still hot.” “What about ‘There’s A Place For Us’?” – my husband asks me when I read him this article. “Another great Jewish-penned wish” (Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story, Tony dies – the wish does not end well). In my friend Emily Barton’s novel Book of Esther, the protagonist, an adolescent Eastern Jewish princess (not a Jewish princess in the American sense, but an actual princess of a fictional Jewish nation in what would now be near Kazakhstan), wishes for something Big. It is the eve (erev) of World War Two, and Esther wants to become a boy so she can fight the “Germani.” Esther does not exactly get her wish, though she gets something else unexpected. Not getting the original wish is probably for the best. It’s not going to go well.
Jews and magic – we don’t talk about our connection to it much, but like all people who traditionally lived outside of the realm of power, we spent a lot of time hoping for the spirit(s) to provide. Shylock’s pound of flesh is a wish — a metaphor desired in reality. Then he tries to actually cut it out. He brings the knife to the trial. Say it with me: it doesn’t go well. Jews don’t get to make a wish and enjoy it coming true. Women don’t get to make a wish and enjoy it coming true. Spells, wishes, always have consequences. As Anya from Buffy later explains about the demonic result of a spell they’ve cast, “Evil things have plans. They have things to do.” The result of the wish is not in our control.
Sometimes I think Donald Trump is that result, a golem built from the rancid clay of our collective fears, the consequence of our beautiful wish that came true: Obama. We wished for him like a holy ghost, we magical Negro-ed him up and down his eight year term, telling him just how dissatisfied we were when he didn’t abide by our every wished-for desire. Look at our evil consequence. It has plans. It has things to do.
We, too, have to make our plans. We have to stop wishing. It gets foolish.
In a documentary about the sixties that I watched in my youth, there was this whole thing about the difference between East Coast and West Coast hippies. Abbie Hoffman summed up the issue, laughing as he described the action to Levitate the Pentagon in 1967. I’m paraphrasing, because I don’t have the exact quote available, but in essence, Hoffman said, “The East Coasters loved the idea of floating the Pentagon as a political action, a metaphor. The West Coasters thought they were actually going to float the Pentagon.”
Clara Lemlich was a teenage labor activist in turn of the century New York. I’d never heard of her, but because of my daughter’s name, I bought the beautiful picture book Brave Girl: Clara Lemlich and the Shirtwaist Makers by Michelle Markell (illustrations by Melissa Sweet). A picture book about a union organizer! My own weird wish granted! In 1909, Lemlich and other “brave girls” led a strike of garment workers when the men are “too careful.” Clara didn’t wish; she acted. My hero Grace Paley – do her characters wish? Not seriously. Though her alter ego protagonist’s name is Faith, she knows wishing won’t do much. Instead, “events turn her around.” I like that one better.
May I never wish again. All I have right now is wishes. Into the woods.
Elizabeth Isadora Gold’s writing about motherhood, books, music, and feminism has appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, Tin House, The Rumpus, Time Out New York, and many other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and daughter. Her nonfiction book, The Mommy Group: Freaking Out, Finding Friends, and Surviving the Happiest Times of Out Lives was published by Atria Books in 2016.