The essays in Kristine Langley Mahler’s collection A Calendar is a Snakeskin are as expansive as they are experimental.
Shelf Awareness wrote of the book:
“These experimental essays about place, home, and the failed effort to belong are closely tied to Eastern North Carolina, but will resonate everywhere”
My book A Calendar Is a Snakeskin is a small memoir: three linked essays tracing the year I turned thirty-eight, when snakes, bears, ghosts, and ancestors kept showing up at my doorstep (literally, in some cases!) and demanding I make sense of them. Symbols everywhere, signs everywhere, eclipses opening and shutting to reveal what I needed to see. It was a mystical year when I could not avoid the old-rooted fears I needed to confront—your run-of-the-mill, traditional fears like “Am I who I am supposed to be?” and “Am I a good mother?” and “Where is home?” and “Am I worthy of love?”—and the universe made sure I had to look them all in the eye.
I wrote Snakeskin as I processed the year, and this soundtrack captures what it sounded like inside my head both as the events were uncoiling and later, when I was making sense of them. Compiling this playlist, it hit me—I’ve been very into Tears For Fears for the past five years and FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, A Calendar Is a Snakeskin is a book about allowing the tears to come, to confront the fears.
The Tipping Point by Tears For Fears
This song was released in 2022—after I had already completed the bulk of A Calendar Is a Snakeskin—but when I heard it for the first time I felt that head-rush that comes when the universe guides you to precisely what you need. A thick energy of inevitability permeates this song, the question “Who’s that ghost knocking at my door? (you know that I can’t love you more)” like the literal heart of my book. The ghosts, the snakes, the bears, the ancestors, the daughters, the siblings all haunting as I kept asking myself “Will you let them out? Will you let them in? Will you ever know when it’s the tipping point?”
Hold on to Me by Placebo
The spoken word section—controversial for its inclusion! Not radio friendly!—lines up a little too cornily with Snakeskin for me to throw it in here without embarrassment, but sometimes fate intervenes and gives you what you are meant to have, not what you want to display. After months of pleading to be held onto (though my behavior WAS “hard to understand/like a phone with no connection”), I also pled with myself to own that “our task is to transform ourselves.”
Crescent Moon by the Cowboy Junkies
A song about a couple, it’s also a song about trying to hold onto someone who does not want to be held! In this song, a life is being planned without the narrator, and she is trying to convince them that she holds something within her that makes her worthy of being loved. In Snakeskin, I pull away from people I love because I am afraid of loss. That back-kicks like a boomerang and whacks me, of course. The hard grind of the guitar in this song devastates me as the narrator asks herself “Do I reach for you when I know you’re on the wane? Do I sense you when I know you’re not around?”
Mount Washington by Beth Orton
Beth is a queen of the mystic and “Nobody can keep you from the one you know you are/nobody to steer the way you sway, the way you walk.” is the terror of Snakeskin—the owning of your self and all your faults. And yet! The sprawling hope in the chorus, “May there never be a time that you don’t live through, may there never be a time that you don’t walk through,” is what I held close as I tried to move with the slightest semblance of grace through one of the most difficult years I’ve had.
Here’s Where The Story Ends by The Sundays
Snakeskin is a book about needing to move the upheaval of an end into nostalgia, to let the story finish. What can I say other than that Snakeskin is the souvenir of a terrible year—terrible in the Biblical sense, causing awe and fear.
Know Who You Are At Every Age by the Cocteau Twins
I first heard this song when I was working a college radio DJ shift years ago—my friend and I were assigned the world’s worst shift, 4am-7am on Wednesday mornings—and when I hear it I go back into the dark morning, too early for anyone to be awake with anything other than their troubled thoughts, a dreamscape of longing and anomie, the heart of Snakeskin keening “I can’t grieve so I won’t grow/I won’t heal til I let it go.”
Circadian Rhythm (Last Dance) by Silversun Pickups
A song that holds the propulsion, the insistence of motion, and the feeling of both restraint and expansion at the same time, like the sound of a foot rhythmically hitting a gas pedal. I listened to this song constantly during the year of Snakeskin, mesmerized by the looping echo of “At last I’m found/Circle around,” of two voices moving around each other and then the solo request of “Nowhere left to go/stay with me.”
Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears For Fears
This song has dominated my life, coming out in 1982, my birth year. It’s the first song I remember being conscious of hearing on the radio. The opening line, “Welcome to your life/There’s no turning back” would be my tattoo if I had space on my arms, and part of the second verse, “It’s my own design/It’s my own remorse/Help me to decide,” is handwritten on a slip of paper that has hovered just over my computer screen at my desk for years. I cannot say anything more profound than Roland and Curt have: we are in this life, there is no turning back, I recognize my own design of the life I have built, and I know my own remorse; in Snakeskin, I am begging the universe to help me to decide what to do with it.
Monday Afternoon by Lori McKenna
Sonically discordant with the mood I’ve crafted here, but Lori McKenna—a fellow mom—spoke into my soul. When I first heard her admitting the pre-chorus aloud (and particularly her acknowledgment that she doesn’t want to work at it—it should come naturally), it gave me the strength to confess the same. “I am telling you, I wish I was a better person.”
The Great Beyond by R.E.M.
Another song that completely predates Snakeskin by over twenty years. I had played this single over and over while driving my parents’ minivan in high school, trying to mimic Michael’s flexible hippie-arms-dance when the chorus popped transcendent. My friends and parents used to look at me worriedly because I’d always go hands-off-steering wheel, entering some kind of musical trance-state. I’m sorry; I know it’s corny; I am a corny person. You should have read my (awful) poetry in my high school lit journal; moons and stars and signs in the sky. Have I grown? Have I changed? Isn’t this book still trying to wrangle answers from the great beyond?
End of Night by Tears For Fears
The chorus soars with the lesson I was trying to teach myself through Snakeskin—”you can’t see the beauty for all the hurt” and then pounds with the promise that “It’s the end of night.” The song is about an end, but it sounds exactly like a triumphant beginning: the willingness to accept the process of shed-and-rebirth, the snake-eating-its-own-tail of Snakeskin.
Kristine Langley Mahler is the author of the essay collection Curing Season: Artifacts (West Virginia University Press, 2022). Her work has been supported by the Nebraska Arts Council, named Notable in Best American Essays 2019 and 2021, and published in DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and Fourth Genre, among other journals. A memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska, Kristine is also the director of Split/Lip Press. Find more about her projects at kristinelangleymahler.com or @suburbanprairie.