Folk names: pudding grass, pennyroyal
Olivia often took the trash out early in the morning, when she knew Dan would be leaving for work, and would call out to him, waving, pretending that nothing was wrong, that she hadn’t just been hanging out her own window with a cigarette in her mouth, or imagining slipping arsenic into her grandmother’s morning cup of tea. When his hands were full, papers and a briefcase in one, a mug of coffee in the other, he would merely nod his head, but on the days when the sun was especially bright, burning off the morning fog earlier than usual, he would pretend, too, waving back, yelling, “Mornin’, Liv,” having no idea that those were the days she measured as tolerable, instead of unbearable. Those were the days when she could get by with one less cigarette, one less fantasy about stealing a vial of atropine from the hospital supply.
All of the characters in The Poison Box struggle to find self-empowerment - a journey I believe is common to all human beings. One of the most difficult inner journeys we take is the one in which we start from a place of no power, at all.
Olivia Prowl was born into this place of powerlessness. Her existence went largely unnoticed by her parents, and her grandmother took it upon herself to mold Olivia into the person her own son could never be, exerting an oppressive control over the young girl.
Many women have this experience of being caged when the slightest hint of their inner wildness comes through. This wildness can be so threatening to others that some parents instinctively try to shut it down. Sometimes, this is done out of a misguided attempt to protect the wild soul of a young woman, and other times it's done with the intention of deliberately clipping the young woman's wings. Because we just cannot have wild women running around doing whatever they want. We just cannot.
Like Olivia, many women succumb to this imprisonment. So many of us don't realize that we have the choice, the power, the right to be free. So many of us don't realize that we've swallowed a sleeping potion and have made the choice to just be content where we are. To never stretch our wings and fly free.
In the story, Olivia has a secret hobby: collecting information about poisons. Poison, it is often said, is much more likely to be chosen as a murder weapon by a woman than by a man. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most popular theories is that poison allows women to kill a dangerous person in their life (an abusive lover, perhaps) from a safe distance. This juxtaposition between gathering the power to take someone's life yet being too afraid - and sometimes too weak - to do so eye-to-eye fascinates me.
By the time we meet Olivia, she is at this stage of vacillating between violent strength and a weakness that threatens to make her disappear. She is as transparent and insubstantial as a piece of rice paper. The man she loves has never noticed her as anything but a neighbor, her grandmother doesn't recognize her autonomy, her lovers ignore her, and her friends have merely absorbed her into their circle without really seeing her, at all.
Even as she begins to evaporate like fog at sunrise, even as she is swallowed by her own passivity, the wild woman within her rallies, stands up with a battle cry, demands to be heard, seen, noticed. She is ready for a fight, to the death.
So many of us find ourselves at this point in life. Too many times laying down our own preferences, our own wants, our own needs, in order to please and pacify others. We think we are slowly dying inside, suffocating, and sometimes, we go willingly into this place. Like an overdose of pennyroyal, we go into multi-organ failure and teeter on the brink of death.
Yet, we often find ourselves surprised by the warrior within that springs forth from the ashes. She may still be too weak to fight hand-to-hand. She may still be too frightened to face her enemy. So the path of poison she takes. Skirting through the grass like a snake. Hiding in the brambles like a shifty fox. Waiting, waiting, waiting to strike.
Desperate times may call for desperate measures. And perhaps it is better for a woman to fight back in subterfuge rather than not at all. Yet this underhanded foul play poisons both the victim and the perpetrator.
Vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness…all side effects of mild pennyroyal poisoning. All side effects of sneaking around conflict, rather than facing our enemies head on.
Why is this so? Because too often, when we finally face the enemy, we realize that the real enemy, the real person who is holding us back is ourselves. It is one of the great challenges of a woman's spiritual journey to realize just how much she is responsible for failing to give birth to her own creative and spiritual freedom.
Pennyroyal is most famous, perhaps, for its reputation as an herb that women once used to induce abortions. While choosing not to bring life into the world at one time or another may be the most empowering choice a woman can make in some circumstances, the metaphorical abortions a woman often subjects herself to can debilitate her soul.
We were not meant to chase after men who do not want us. We were not meant to pursue domestic bliss if we're only doing it to be the "right" kind of woman. We were not meant to dress in ways that displease us just because it pleases others. We were not meant to devote decades of our lives to a certain type of job if we're only doing it because we feel it's what a woman should do.
Making choices like these is to subject ourselves to one energetic abortion after another. We refuse to give birth to the true essence of our soul and to let that essence live and thrive in this world. We are afraid, so we keep it shut up in a box until that horrible day that our inner warrior screams to get out, targets other people in our life who look like the oppressors, and finally, we realize that it is us, ourselves, who have clipped our own wings.
We won't heal from the poisoning until we look past the others and into ourselves. We won't heal until we learn how to set ourselves free.