What’s your fortune? On Choosing your Fate, Your Type, Your Life, Your Loaf

My daughter wants a crystal ball. I don’t have one of those lying around at home, so I got her a Wildwood Tarot app on my phone. She was briefly entertained – asking it, instead of Siri, a few questions (does the cat love me?) – but ultimately unimpressed. She wants to look into the future. I feel concerned about whether she believes the future is pre-determined, and she has little agency in shaping it. She is slightly irritated when I question her about this – apparently I am missing the point. It seems her desire for a crystal ball isn’t for any practical purposes – it’s not because she actually wants to know what is going to happen. It’s more because the act of looking, the possibility of receiving images, information, holds a mystical appeal. There is something mildly titillating about it. It makes me think of horoscopes, of tabloid star sign talk, and this in turn reminds me of the girlie magazines I sometimes agree to buy her, inside which, along with the word searches and colouring activities, there is invariably a ‘personality quiz.’

‘Which type are you? What kind of little pony/ unicorn/ fairy/ princess/ girl?’ the quizzes ask. You know the sort of thing – you answer a series of multiple choice questions:

 What’s your idea of a great Saturday night?

A) Staying in with a good book

B) Going out to a party

C) Sitting round a campfire and telling stories

And at the end you tot up your scores. If you answered mostly ‘A’s you are the quiet, imaginative one; mostly ‘Bs’ you are super sociable; mostly ‘Cs’ and you are the outdoorsy, nature lover.

Etc etc.

There are no such quizzes in my son’s magazines. And he holds no interest in looking into the future, other than sometimes to dream of being older, able to look back with nostalgia at the video games that were in vogue when he was young. So why, I wonder, is it part of our training as girls and women to develop this titillating relationship to our type, our fate, our fortune? Is it precisely because it is, or hasn’t been, in our hands to shape it? So, the only power left to us is to titter and talk, like the ladies in a Jane Austen novel, over which men might choose us, and to work on identifying the type of girls we are, so we are ripe and ready to be chosen?

For the boys, it seems, one size fits all. Or rather, one type fits all, and size is the only variable that matters. The bigger the better. Considering other types, other options, seems a rather emasculating activity. Either you measure up and are a man, or you don’t. End of story.

But for the girls, variety is the spice of life. We are the chocolates in the box, desperately interested in the identification menu – soft-centred or solid? Caramel or coffee? How I compare to the next girl, and who might get picked first, is the universally acknowledged question of import.

In other words, it is self-determinacy for the boys. Self-discovery for the girls. Deciding who you are (though there is actually only one option), versus finding out, (with a limited range of options and the assistance of a handy multiple choice quiz). But, I don’t need a crystal ball to be able to tell you that, in this picture, the future of both genders looks pretty bleak.

So, how to introduce some true agency into the mix? Playing with and choosing your pronouns is, I believe, one current, potent tactic, one way to open up more options for all. But I am happy with my ‘she/ her’ ones – I want, instead, to change my nouns, my narrative.

I realise now that many of my life choices have been shaped by my attempts to evade being a chocolate in the box. Of course, this is impossible – after all ‘nutty’ is a kind of chocolate: there is always a type to fit the misfits – but still I try, working furiously at it, boxing myself in, in the effort. Next month I will turn fifty. Time, perhaps, to find a different approach. I am wondering if I could write my way there, into a place of more genuine choice, step towards a future with which I have a frank and open relationship, instead of a flirtatious or a fearful one.

I am going to try.

First, however, I need to write out the type I have been playing, while trying to resist all types. I am going to give her a name: she is called the Huel Hermit.

On the quizzes, she shows up as the studious one, the Twilight Sparkle of the Mane Six for those that know My Little Pony. But she is actually more passionate than studious. More like the mystics and medieval hermits that my mother has written about, who eschewed being picked out by a man, but instead yearned after spirit – the divine. Huel is a company that supplies a kind of ‘meal-in-a-bottle’ drink, upon which I have come to rely heavily of late. Because my hermetic self finds eating an annoying distraction. Housework is definitely of no interest. Getting dressed is also unimportant – night clothes will do all day. Furniture is irrelevant – the floor is fine. Sleeping is an inconvenient necessity. Holidays are unheard of. As is make-up, shaving body hair or any of that female frippery. Children are tolerated but are also, fundamentally, distracting. Because my Huel Hermit just wants to work, to write, read, think, create. Notebooks, pencils and a good pencil sharpener are her prize possessions. She has a laptop as well, despite her medieval origins. A phone too. She edits emails. Even WhatsApp messages are scrutinised, composed with care, in case any of these little lit up letters might be a way to contact something else, something more.

My Huel Hermit has been difficult but useful as a guiding force over the years. She helped me through school, university, a circus training, two MAs, the making of an aerial solo show, then the writing of a novel. She does discipline well. A bit too well. But now, as I sit in a new house, with two children and a husband, and a home to make around us, she is next to useless. She has no interest in unpacking boxes, except perhaps to hide herself inside one and, Scrooge-like, to keep working. No interest in balance, health or even happiness – things that feel ever more important as I age. Not much of a future then.

Naming her is in and of itself helpful, and slightly shocking to feel how much this type, this drive to evade the female types on offer – not to be pretty/ sporty/ party/ spicy – has impacted my life.

Time to write my own new type – an image I am going to summon up in the crystal ball, the one that I don’t have.

This is what I see when I do this, coming out of the mist:

She is a big woman. Curved forearms, thick thighs, large hips. The Huel Hermit is a scrawny little thing, but this woman is closer to Luisa’s stature in Encanto, the one with superhuman strength. She is wearing a full crimson skirt, white blouse, white apron. She has a rolling pin in one hand, and she pats the other hand with it, like a cartoon policeman would pat his truncheon. It isn’t mist that surrounds her at all, I realise- it’s flour. White puffs of the stuff come up off her palm when she pats it. Paf, paf, she goes. Puff, puff, goes the flour. She is smiling. Not menacing. Friendly. Not the arm of the law, but arms ready for the loaf.

The flour is soft. The dough too, in the bowl beside her. It makes a tiny noise as it rises. Like breathing. She kneads it down with her knuckles. Unlike Encanto’s Luisa this woman does not feel under any pressure. Remember Obelix from the Asterix books? How he strolled through the woods, paffing Roman soldiers out the way, casual as you like, leaving them in a pile with stars going round their heads as he strolled on. She is like this. She leaves a trail of disorientated men, and white flour in her wake.

She has married a small man. Picked him off the pile. Nice. Sensitive. The flour gets up his nostrils and he sneezes frequently. She keeps him in the top left kitchen cupboard. It is where he feels most at ease. On the shelf. With his books. His shirts, neatly ironed, folded. He tends to hide away when she has people round, which she does often. But late at night, when the kitchen is quiet, the heat of the day done, she opens the cupboard and they sit – she at the table, he up on the shelf, and they chat about this and that. He reads to her from his books. She listens, rolls the little flecks of dough left on her fingers from the day into thin lines. She dusts the cupboard for him, with her feather duster, made from the rich brown feathers of a hen that she reared, wrung, plucked. And when he tires, she strokes him too, with the duster. Gentle as she can, until he sleeps, up on his shelf. And then she sits on alone in the dark kitchen. A woman with two good arms.

That is the picture that comes in my imaginary crystal ball. I wonder what her name is, this vision of a future self, until I remember the origin of the word ‘lady’. It derives from the Old English hlǣfdīġe, from hlāf (“bread, loaf”) + dīġe (“kneader”), related to Old English dǣġe (“maker of dough”). A lady is a loaf-kneader. I love that a name that sounds so grand, has such a grounded root.

I like my Lady. I like that she is womanly, not rejecting her gender, but wholly unflustered by it. Both strong and tender. Sociable. Hospitable. I like that she doesn’t read, only listens. That she picked her husband. Picked him up and put him on a shelf. She feels very far from me – antithetical to my Huel Hermit. But then again I am not a slight woman. Short but not petite. My husband is very good at ironing. I like it when people read to me. And I used to make bread. Used to have strong arms.

So next time my daughter asks me for a crystal ball, maybe I will fetch the mixing bowl down. She likes baking – I think she will be pleased. We can get the flour out – be ladies together. This week we can make hot cross buns. Because although we can’t control the future, we can roll up our sleeves, and all of our selves, and get kneading, right now in the present. Which seems like a powerful kind of agency – to be like a raising or leavening agent. Preparing the dough, leaving the loaves out, rising, ready for tomorrow.

So, your questions for the month?
I am not going to set you a personality quiz, but rather invite you to make up your own.

How would you name the types you are playing in your life?

What different roles or types do you dream of playing instead?

What self or selves could you conjure up, to help you right now, in shaping the future? Who or what is your leavening agent of choice?

An audio version can be found here: https://soundcloud.com/matilda-leyser/whats-your-fortune-on-choosing-your-fate-your-type-your-life-and-your-loaf

Artwork by Xavier Singer-Kingsmith @xotuski


  1. Hilary Douglas-Wood

    I reslly enjoyed reading this. I too might be capable of such extremes. However flour is no substitute for ismbic pentameter.

  2. Peter Webb

    Excellent, thought-provoking piece. Brava!


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