A Witch’s Guide to an Existential Crisis

San Francisco, Kiki’s Delivery Service and feeling stuck

I’ve always been captivated by coming-of-age stories. There’s something timeless and comforting about seeing fictional characters grapple with that wretched mind-meddling phase between adolescence and adulthood. The mood to these stories is distinctly anxious — wherein the young protagonist is simultaneously confused and courageous, overly indulgent in self reflection and raging uncontrollably. And it’s just so… relatable. Does your soul trouble you? Yes, mine does too.

Recently, I had a conversation with a local librarian about the coming-of-age “genre,” she called it. She was archetypically bespectacled, elderly and kind. I was 23 and wearing the same black dress I’d worn the previous three days because I was trying out the “capsule” wardrobe lifestyle (but really because I was short on loose change for the laundromat.) She talked to me about The House on Mango Street, J.D Salinger and Judy Blume. She thought the increasingly marketable Young Adult genre and coming-of-age were interchangeable. I wasn’t so sure.

At one point, I suddenly I wondered aloud, “Isn’t there such a thing as adult coming-of-age?” Do most people grow out of this genre alongside the characters? In coming-of-age, the stories ultimately end when the characters, you know, come of age. But what happens to them afterwards, when they’re adults? I certainly worried.

The bespectacled librarian wore a passive, sympathetic smile while she listened to me babble.

Was this personal obsession with coming-of-age a commentary on the anxieties of my millennial generation? Is my extreme self awareness a product of my own privilege? Am I treading a slower path? At what age will I no longer relate to the dragging undercurrent of fear and doubt so emblematic of the coming-of-age experience? Oh my god. Am I totally too old to feel like this?

“You’ll get there, dear,” the librarian finally said, in a voice that usually preceded a reassuring pat on the shoulder, which I quickly dodged. I hung my head and walked over to the front desk to pay for my overdue fines.

I was a little mortified. I‘m not typically a person who overshares or indulges in existential outbursts in front of strangers, but it apparently didn’t take much to activate my voidgirl mode in those days. I was up to my ass in introspection and nature poetry. I needed to go home and lie down. I needed to watch a feel-good movie. And, for whatever reason that day, Kiki’s Delivery Service came to mind.

There is a quiet, sappy softness in my heart for all Studio Ghibli movies but it began with Kiki’s Delivery Service, when I was five and VHS was a thing and my mother would stir up some chocolate milk before joining me in front of the TV on the living room floor.

Cue this plucky, irresistible witch-in-training. Her name is Kiki, she’s thirteen, she’s a little stubborn and more than a little green. She wears a plain, purple dress, her best friend is a talking black cat named Jiji. Borrowing her mother’s broom, Kiki and Jiji shakily embark on a year abroad so she can Find Herself. It’s the classic small-town-girl-moves-to-the-big-city trope, except she’s a witch. An adorable, audacious little witch and I love her.

In addition to an amazing plot and cast of characters, this film contains unforgettable scenery. According to director, Hayao Miyazaki, Kiki’s city is inspired by a geographic patchwork of different locations: Napoli, Lisbon, Stockholm, Paris. But the glittering seaport town in which Kiki ultimately swoops into will always remind me of San Francisco. A golden, brimming sprawl of city floating on waves with a Mediterranean climate and London fog, easter egg Victorians and red trolley cars.

The film makes note that witches are pretty rare in non-magical, industrial cities, so when Kiki arrives, she feels exposed and totally out of her element. Its citizens are (mostly) curious and friendly. There isn’t even much in terms of a major antagonist or villain, barring Kiki’s internal anxieties. But we’ll get to that later.

Kiki quickly finds room-and-board in an attic attached to a bakery and is able to apply her unique aviation abilities as a courier for the baker. She and Jiji form an array of friendships along the way: a clock tower operator, the pregnant baker-host and her husband, two loving and dignified elderly women, and a forest-dwelling painter. Oh there’s also this adorkable, Where’s Waldo engineer kid who is bewitched by Kiki because, incidentally, he is also into aviation

Kiki is warm and lively, if a little slow to trust people upon first meeting them. With an exception to Tombo (and even that relationship took time to build) Kiki seems to struggle to relate to people her age, even if they aren’t outwardly hostile to her. There are a few scenes in which Kiki is juxtaposed with other teenagers, girl gangs and literal carloads of cool kids to whom she comes off as sullen and dismissive. Later she confesses to Jiji that she’s intimidated and feels like an outsider.

In the English version: “I think something’s wrong with me. I meet a lot of people and at first everything seems to be going okay but then I start feeling like I’m such an outsider.

These are such small details, but so realistic to the isolation and self consciousness that are entwined with being thirteen… and a witch.

Earlier, I mentioned the lack of a tangible villain in Kiki’s slice-of-life story. I didn’t consider this very deeply when I watched the movie as a child, but now, at 3pm on a week-day on my friend’s couch in Oakland, my insides were poised to be stirred by the main oppositional force in the movie: Kiki’s crippling self doubt.

All of the ceaseless delivering and baking and lack of much else in her life has started to wear on Kiki. She struggles to communicate with her friends and begins to decline invitations and jobs. She wonders if she made the right decision and considers returning home. Even worse, she seems to be suffering some form of Psychosomatic Superpower Outage. It all begins when she wakes up one day and realizes she and Jiji, her black cat no longer speak the same language. This startles her and the very next thing she does is to grab her broom and check if she can still fly. After a few sad attempts she ends up falling and breaking the broom she inherited from her mother. Now the only two connections to her home — Jiji and the broom — are gone. She’s losing her ability to fly quicker than a toupee in a hurricane. This has practical implications. If she can’t fly, she can’t work. A more existential question: if she can’t fly is she even a witch? If she’s not a witch, is she anything at all?

This question is, I think, is the real focal point of the movie. How Kiki deals with her loss of magic and the way it coincides with an onset of debilitating self doubt and sadness. For a feel-good children’s anime about talking cats and witches, Kiki’s Delivery Service somehow tackles heavy subjects like depression and lack of direction and self worth.

True Art is Angsty

Every witch needs a witch doctor so cue your Reclusive Artist and Wise Woman figure to the scene. One of the friends Kiki makes along her journey is named Ursula, a young painter who lives alone in a woodland cottage. If Kiki’s city is San Francisco, I picture Ursula as post-beat, otherworldly denizen of the forests of Big Basin or Big Sur. In the film, she is proudly self-sufficient and gives zero fucks about social norms. When she visits Kiki and sees her floundering, she kind of steps into a mentorship role. She suggests to Kiki a break, a mini vacation and they head off into Ursula’s realm of wilderness and art and life epiphanies.

When I watched Kiki’s Delivery Service this time around, I watched the dubbed version and was struck by how much more poignant the Japanese dialogue is compared to the English. They have a conversation while Ursula sketches Kiki’s profile,

Ursala — “painting and magical powers seem to be very similar. Sometimes I can’t paint a thing.”

Kiki — “Without even thinking about it I used to be able to fly. Now I‘m trying to look inside myself to figure out how I did it.

Ursula responds by saying “Take long walks, look at the scenery, doze off at noon. Don’t do a single thing. Then suddenly, I’m able to paint again. It’s going to be fine I promise.”

Ursula explains that when she was Kiki’s age she always knew she wanted to be a painter. That she’d fall asleep at her easel while painting. But then one day she couldn’t paint anymore. The magic was gone — she’d been copying paintings she’d seen somewhere before, and they weren’t even good imitations. To be truly good and what you were meant to do you have to double down on discovering your own style and personal meaning. And sometimes, to do this, you have to change your focus. Talent is based on self confidence as much as it’s based on innate ability.

Ursula — “To fly you don’t chant a spell or anything like that?”

Kiki — “We fly with our spirit.”

Ursula — “The witch’s spirit! The spirit of witches, the spirit of artists, the spirit of bakers. I suppose it must be a power given by God. Sometimes you suffer for it.”

This conversation was sort of demystifying for me. It gave some flesh to Kiki’s sadness and helped me understand my own hazy misdirected sadness I’d been feeling. I suddenly felt a little more lucid than I had the previous few hours, or even the previous few months. My problems no longer felt strange and impossible to cohere. This fictional reclusive painter understood Kiki and she understood me.

Kiki’s powers appear to be fading away because she’s suffering an artistic block of some sort, hitting the same wall and finding her talents meaningless .How many people can’t relate to that? This is about as universal a coming-of-age, leaving-home idea that could ever exist. Ursula’s advice for creativity block and, perhaps, low self esteem — which is often the deeper underlying issue itself — is to distract yourself, enjoy life, acknowledge that you have that spirit inside you, but chill out until you figure out what’s driving it.

Don’t do a single thing, she says.

Easier said than freak-frackin done, especially if your career aspirations and identity depend on this one perceived talent of yours that sets your apart from everyone else.

As artists, creators, thinkers and sorcerers, we have all been in the place Kiki is. That place where we can’t paint anything right, or fly, or talk to our friends about the things we care about. That place where everything comes out wrong over and over and we begin to question whether we ever had a calling to begin with.

Ursula inherently loves to paint and she thinks that passion is entwined with her soul, but she begins to lose interest when she thinks too much about her approach, compares her work to other artists, cares too much about what her audience is expecting. She has to come up with her own style.

Kiki’s Delivery Service was always a definitive film of my youth, and more importantly my early adulthood. When I first moved to the Bay Area, I couldn’t write a thing. I couldn’t write cover letters — I’d get caught up in my own discomfort of selling my talents (Did I have talents?) or even describing myself (Who do I think I am?). Defining myself felt like trying to bite my own teeth. For this reason, I also couldn’t write journal entries, poetry, blog posts or social media updates. I would start strongly and fizzle out and the whole process was demoralizing and painful. I felt like Kiki in that I couldn’t understand why a skill like writing, that had previously come so easily to me, had seemed to evaporate before my very eyes. I felt like Ursula in that anything I did manage to get down, felt like crude, half-assed imitations of headlines I had read on Buzzfeed. Where was my voice?

I couldn’t communicate to my friends. I felt deeply ashamed of and embarrassed by my lack of status, my lack of anything at all to add to the conversation. I started avoiding people, declined chances to catch up with old friends and dreaded personal questions.

I had gone through creation blocks like this before, where I would hold words hostage inside me due to stress or distraction or indifference. It never felt caused by a lack of self confidence. I had, innately, all the time, inside the marrow of my being, a desperate, primal need to create. It was the Holy spirit, my witch’s spirit. My flying ointment. My god-given gift.

But upon moving to the Bay Area, the creative force inside me felt simultaneously hungry and completely shapeless. I felt hideous and exposed and stupider than ever. I was deep in the Silicon Valley, a no-man’s land of tech utopianism, ambition, venture capitalism, networking events and big data conferences. I wasn’t cynical of these facets. I was eager to fit in and make a mark. I knew the right buzzwords, I knew how to bullet point ideas, and why the market always wins. I regularly added to a list of meaningful platitudes on the Notes app on my phone to kick my ambition into gear. I was going to crack big tech open like a cold and broken hallelujah. Just get a day job, first, my best friend said wisely. You can be an influencer. Or a social media specialist. An office assistant. You can buy the snacks and execute the company’s happy hours.

On some days I would just watch people, on the BART, at the Apple store downtown, inside tiny bite-size cocktail bars in the Tenderloin. When will I feel like I’ve earned this? Some days I felt like I was waxing and waning into something cold and incorrigible. A woman who explores the depths of her sadness isn’t typically valorized as a hero or someone capable of working for the Big Five. My paralysis felt self-indulgent, to me. Petty. Unimpressive. Good luck putting this your LinkedIn, all this thinking yourself to death. Soul searching was no longer interesting to me, and especially not to the industry.

Don’t Do A Single Thing

While a little bewildered, Kiki ultimately takes her friend’s advice. And — spoiler alert for the film — Kiki eventually regains her powers. They look a little different than they did before she lost them. She still is unable to communicate to Jiji in the same way — perhaps another important theme of growing out of reliance, or something like that. Her flying abilities don’t seem to come to her as easily and forcefully as they did when she was a fledgling, but they are real, fleshed out, more naturally manifested.

I needed Kiki’s Delivery Service as a reminder that failure is just a part of growing up. I needed a lead character who struggled with her decision to be her own person and to fulfill her own purpose because I was already surrounded by clever, capable people — my own friends — who were killing it in their fields. Or at least were capable of faking it until they were.

It’s okay, the movie said to me. It’s okay to think and watch and wonder for awhile.

I decided to take a break from churning out cover letters. I started to feel less guilty for my consumption-to-creation ratio. At first, I dejectedly and obsessively scrolled LinkedIn profiles and Facebook posts. Then I started watched movies. Frances Ha, Ladybird, Like Water For Chocolate, Forest Gump, Legally Blonde 2, the remainder of Hayao Miyazaki’s lovely, whimsical arsenal. I let familiar, fictional characters strum my heartstrings. I played my boyfriend’s ukulele. I devoured tomes of high fantasy novels that tread similar themes as Kiki’s Delivery Service. I listened to Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” a couple hundred times.

I interrogated friends, fellow writers, and my mom and dad about their lives, their beliefs, their worries and fears. I entrenched myself into their worlds and accepted the kind, discerning pep talks they gave me in return. I quieted down. I relished in the miracle of not having to talk about myself. “We have a word for that in Japanese,” Miyazaki said in an interview. “It’s called ma. Emptiness … The time in between clapping is ma.”

I’ve been trying to figure out a way to sum up Kiki’s Delivery Service in one last paragraph. Kiki’s story is a success story, and my story will also be a success story (eventually.) However, rarely does anyone one talks about failure and that’s why I wanted to write this blog post.

If you’re feeling at a loss, try going back to the fundamentals. Sometimes you’ve got to just come home after a bad day and scorch your skin from a shower and then eat a jar of peanut butter with a spoon. Call your friend and ask him what his favorite meme is lately. Go to the bookstore or play the new Zelda game. You’ve got to stop taking everything so damn personally. At least you have the advantage of being yourself and not some random stranger .You’ve got to love yourself, kiddo and the rest will come soon.

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