Growing up with abuse, I came to see the experience of joy as inseparable from the threat that it would all soon be undone.
As a child, I spent my summers playing outdoor games with other kids from my neighborhood. Our playground was the block that I lived on. We didn’t have access to a field to play baseball, so we played a shrunken-down version in whichever backyard was available to us, or we played on the street. We played street hockey without any protective gear or roller skates, regularly yelling out “CAR!” to avoid being run over. Tag was one of our staple games, as it didn’t require any equipment or special skill; we only had to run. It was a favorite of mine because I could outrun the boys who chased me and tried to grab my long ponytail. We designated one knobbed oak tree lining our street as “home base.” When I reached it, I didn’t just touch it—I threw my arms around it, felt its rough bark press against my skin. I was out of breath, but safe.
Knocking on wood—on a tree or other wooden object—has long been associated with protection. “Touching wood,” as the superstitious ritual is referred to in the UK, has numerous possible origin stories. One involves the pagan belief that trees were inhabited by spirits. A person might touch wood to seek the spirit’s protection, show gratitude for good luck, or block evil spirits that might be listening in. This pagan belief was then allegedly altered by Christians, who linked the wood to wooden prayer beads and the cross used during Christ’s crucifixion. Another story from Ireland claims the practice of knocking wood is meant to thank leprechauns for good luck. Folklorist Steve Roud disputes these origin stories, instead tracing the origin of the superstition to “Tiggy Touchwood,” a nineteenth-century game of tag played by British children. In this game, one player is “Tiggy” (though the name changes according to region), similar to “It” as we play tag today. Children are chased and become Tiggy if they’re caught. If a child touches wood, such as a tree, then they are safe.
Knocking on wood is a type of “conversion ritual,” an action that many of us automatically perform without giving much thought to it. It’s a ritual we might use to tamp down anxiety when we feel danger, worry that we’re tempting fate, or enter into an uncertain situation. It’s an avoidant action, a physical show in which we push a force down or away, to quash the fear that a negative event might occur. If we stop to think about it rather than perform it automatically, we know it’s irrational.
I understand how abuse can skew our thinking—it casts a spell that requires its own kind of undoing.
Irrational or not, it persists in various forms across many cultures. In Turkey, when hearing about the misfortune of others, you should pull on your earlobe and touch wood twice. Iron is the preferred material to touch in Italy, due to its once-rare and precious status. People in Sweden say “Pepper, pepper, touch wood,” toss pepper over a shoulder, and then touch wood to prevent a curse from taking hold.
Knocking on wood is also said to prevent the devil himself from overhearing discussion of a bad event that could happen in the future, which then prevents the bad event from occurring. But the ritual applies to boastful talk as well: If the devil or an evil spirit overhears a person talking about their good luck, they might be tempted to reverse that person’s fortunes.
As a writer and lover of stories, I suspect that my overactive imagination feeds my habit of knocking on wood when I express some future hope. My mind floats into the imagery of myths and fairy tales that warn children against assuming certainty or showing too much pride. I might not believe an evil spirit waits to puncture my confidence or optimism, but I can almost hear it laughing within the heartwood of a nearby tree like a character in a story I might write. Its red eyes open when I dare to show any degree of certainty. I usually won’t announce when I’ve won a prize or signed a contract for a new story or essay until publication day arrives. The few times I’ve broken this rule, I’ve instinctively knocked on wood.
I can easily run through outlandish scenarios when thinking about what might happen next, and those scenarios tend to lean toward negative outcomes. Anticipated joy might be snatched away for some unforeseen reason. Science journalist Matthew Hutson points out that “negative scenarios engage our imagination more than positive ones.” If we experience a negative event after anticipating a positive, then the result feels even worse, furthering the idea that tempting fate is a practice best avoided or necessitating a ritual to ward it off.
When a neighbor came by to gossip about the latest misfortune to befall someone in our neighborhood on Long Island, my grandmother used to knock on our wooden kitchen table to ensure that our family would not experience the same. My grandmother’s Polish-immigrant parents, who had come from a country where the preference is to knock on unpainted wood, passed the ritual to her. It was easier to simply knock on wood than to consciously resist the superstition passed to me.
The idea that confidently or presumptuously looking forward to something good is perilous was ingrained in me from a young age. Moments of joy in my childhood were so often cut short by violence—one wrong word when my father had had too many beers obliterated all hope that things might be taking a turn for the better.
Growing up with abuse, and relatives who modeled superstitious rituals to avoid tempting fate, I came to see the experience of joy as inseparable from the threat that it would all soon be undone. It was impossible for me to trust or fully live in moments of joy. And just as the gloom of abuse colored any happiness I experienced, I watched that same gloom overtake too many women in my life.
After high school, after I’d outstayed my welcome on a series of couches and in a couple of squat houses, I lived in a shelter for homeless youth. I shared a room with six other girls. My seventh roommate was the daughter of one of the other girls, a little over a year old. At night, I would hear her mother whisper and sing to her while they were wrapped up in each other’s arms on a single bed. Listening to her voice calmed me too.
I only had to look after myself. I couldn’t comprehend how unimaginably difficult it was for her, to be homeless and also responsible for another human being. How could it be that this young mother, no more than eighteen years old at the time, seemed so full of joy in such difficult circumstances? She was always happy and hopeful during our group meetings, while others crossed their arms and remained largely silent. She openly shared her big plans for the day when she could finally leave the shelter and provide a home for herself and her daughter.
And she did it: She eventually found work and moved into an apartment that volunteers had helped her secure. She was one of the few residents I can recall who left the shelter with an actual home to go to—I remember the wide, unwavering smile on her face at our meager send-off party.
Joy requires practice, too, as much as any ritual.
My grandmother, who routinely knocked on wood, always seemed deeply and chronically unhappy. As a child, I swore that would not be me when I was grown. She and I did have moments of joy together, when I would rest my head on her chest and we talked as though there was nothing in the world to fear, but she was angry or sad so often that it left a lasting impression on me. “Everything is shit,” she was fond of saying, as though she were casting a spell. I would lie on the grass in our backyard, stare at our battered tree crawling with ants, and imagine breaking the spell of unhappiness that seemed to haunt my grandmother.
I’ve long held a love of trees, and sometimes I’ve wondered if the foundation of that love has its roots in those childhood games of tag, when an old oak offered brief protection in an unstable world. I once found comfort in games and rituals, but I’m not a kid anymore, and I don’t presume safety or security. Anyone who has experienced precarity knows how easily life can take an unwanted turn. I also understand how abuse can skew our thinking—it casts a spell that requires its own kind of undoing.
I wonder if knocking wood is a way of training ourselves to continually expect the worst, and if, in doing so, we somehow betray the joy of the present as well as the joy that awaits. Joy requires practice, too, as much as any ritual. I have to practice resisting worst-case scenarios when they start running though my head. I have to practice resisting the fear my father instilled in me that something bad always follows something good. I have to practice resisting my default mindset, which tells me misfortune lurks around the corner, that it waits for me like the neighborhood boys watching me, waiting to pounce, waiting for me to pull my hand away from the old oak tree so they can take me out. I have to practice believing that no one is waiting to steal my joy.