Life lessons from my favourite witches

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One of my favourite memories of my childhood is being read to by my Mother while cuddled up in bed each night. Anyone who knows our family will know the magical collection of books my Mum has acquired over her life. I cannot claim to have picked up her love of reading quite as much as my brother (who’s head is always in a book lately!), but I certainly love reading all the same and will be forever grateful for the many fictional worlds she introduced me to as a child.

One series I have read and re-read over and over is Terry Pratchett’s series about Tiffany Aching. A young witch living in a farming village in Pratchett’s elaborate Discworld series. I am quite sure I will never tire of her adventures of adolescence and saving the world. All of which have become more and more relevant as I have continued to grow up and face the big wide world myself.

Tiffany is the eldest child of a hard-working rural family, very much aware of her responsibilities, her connection to the land around her, and the power of knowledge and learning. She is the kind of character whose iconic image is built from her ragged dress, oversized boots and trusty frying pan with which she proves over and over is all she needs to save the day. At just 9 years old Tiffany is already an oddball in her community due to her thirst for knowledge and unwavering sense of self. She questions everything, and I think she inspired me to do the same.

“…the book never gave you the evidence of anything. It talked about “a handsome prince”… was he really, or was it just because he was a prince that people called handsome? As for “a girl who was as beautiful as the day was long”… well, which day? In midwinter it hardly ever got light! The stories don’t want you to think, they just wanted you to believe what you were told…”

In the information age we are living in today I often find myself coming back to Tiffany’s critical way of looking at the world. After all, news and media is in a lot of ways just modern society’s version of the fable’s and stories Tiffany is questioning.

She has an awesome way of explaining this thinking too, I honestly thought this was what magic was when I was a kid. And if I could master this kind of thinking then I too could become a witch as magical as Tiffany…

“First Sight and Second Thoughts, that’s what a witch had to rely on: First Sight to see what’s really there, and Second Thoughts to watch the First Thoughts to check that they were thinking right.”

As I have gotten older and my vocabulary has expanded to understand the words, perceptive and critical thinking, I realize that this is in a lot of ways what Tiffany and the other witches of the Discworld are talking about when they discuss their “First Sight” and “Second Thoughts.” But Tiffany taught me first, and Tiffany made it magic. At 9 years old my own understanding of seeing the world through clear lenses without judgement, and questioning my own bias when I was thinking came from this magical idea of “First Sight” and “Second Thoughts.” For the longest time that’s all I knew it as, and to be honest even now I think it’s more fun to think of it this way rather than just critical thinking.

“… And in Tiffany’s case, there were sometimes Third Thoughts and Fourth Thoughts, although these… sometimes led her to walk into doors.”

Tiffany taught me that there is no right or wrong way to look at things (although thinking too much could lead to a bruised head). In fact she made me feel that the more ways you could look at any one thing the better! The world is what we make it after all and just because something is a seemingly concrete idea doesn’t mean we can’t give it a bit of our own thinking too. At the least it will make your life more colourful and entertaining, and at the best you might just be able to change the world.

“Tiffany was not afraid of heights at all. She could walk past tall trees without batting an eyelid. Looking up at huge towering mountains didn’t bother her a bit. What she was afraid of, although she hadn’t realized it up until this point, was depths. She was afraid of dropping such a long way out of the sky that she’d have time to run out of breath screaming before hitting the rocks so hard that she’d turn to a sort of jelly and all her bones would break into dust. She was, in fact, afraid of the ground.” 

Somehow Tiffany managed to be both sensible and practical, and also deeply creative and imaginative. To me this meant she was able to live so deeply connected to the universe she was in and appreciate it in a way that very few others around her could.

“Open your eyes, and then open your eyes again.”

Yep, that quote at the top of this page is from Tiffany of course. She taught me the fascination, wonder and magic that can be found in the world around me. Something that was a massive part of who I was as a quiet and somewhat wayward child. And something I am pleased to say has only grown within me as I’ve gotten to experience more and more of the world.

“The secret is not to dream” she whispered,
“The secret is to wake up. Waking up is harder. I have woken up and I am real. I know where I come from and I know where I’m going.”

More recently I have come to associate this with mindfulness, the practice of being truly present in the moment. Something that sounds stupidly simple – but something that with the curse of the millions of easy mindless forms of entertainment at out fingertips today – is surprisingly complicated. Once again though, I reckon Tiffany makes it sound a lot more like magic. And…

“It didn’t stop being magic just because you found out how it was done.”

In a lot of ways I liked to think I was quite like Tiffany, I shared her curiosity for the world and I definitely felt her self-imposed role of responsibility as eldest child. However Tiffany was a lot more sure of herself than I ever was, but I guess this gave me something to aspire to, and at 22yrs old I think I might finally be figuring that one out!

“Zoology, eh?  That’s a big word, isn’t it.”
“No, actually it isn’t,” said Tiffany.
“Patronizing is a big word.  Zoology is really quite short.”

Because what I have come to realize over the past few years is that I will never really know what I’m doing, and so really getting good at pretending and wholeheartedly doing my best is all that I, and anyone, can really do. Even Tiffany.

“It wasn’t a spell, except in her own head, but if you couldn’t make spells work in your own head you couldn’t make them work at all.”

There is a lot to be said for faking it till you make it, and I think a lesson I have learnt is that this will never really stop. There isn’t really a “making it” in life. It will just keep changing its course on you and keep you forever on your toes. As I grew up and life became darker and more challenging, I once again found myself going back to the lessons Tiffany had to learn as she trained to become the great Witch and protector of her land.

“There isn’t a way things should be. There is just what happens and what we do.”

“These times are not necessarily good, and not necessarily bad. In fact, what they are depends on what we are.”

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In the Discworld, witches were the amazing, often misunderstood, and definitely underrated protectors of the people and the land. And they did this by what was perceived as magic, but really a large amount of their magic was that they cared deeply in an objective and practical way. They just got on with it and did what needed to be done. They didn’t do it for praise or validation or because they expected anything in return. They did it because it needed doing. And without them the world would surely turn to chaos.

“All witches are selfish, the Queen had said. But Tiffany’s Third Thoughts said: Then turn selfishness into a weapon! Make all things yours! Make other lives and dreams and hopes yours! Protect them! Save them! Bring them into the sheepfold! Walk the gale for them! Keep away the wolf! My dreams! My brother! My family! My land! My world! How dare you try to take these things, because they are mine! I have a duty!”

So these are the witches I grew up admiring, and still do to this day. I know throughout human history witches are known as many other things. But to me witches are my role models. They are the women (and men) in my life (fictional and real) who just continue to do what needs to be done out of a deep sense of love and compassion for the people and world around them, with no expectations for anything in return.

“You’ve taken the first step.”
“There’s a second step?” said Tiffany.
“No; there’s another first step.  Every step is a first step if it’s a step in the right direction.”

Recently I feel I have taken a first step in the right direction in my own life. I have always held onto that responsibility to good by others, but I was missing something. Selflessness is useless if it doesn’t come from strong foundations. My next first step is to learn to show myself some of that love and compassion so that I have more magic in me to share with the world.

This really was meant to be a light-hearted look at some of my favourite quotes from my favourite books, but here we are digging up another life lesson for myself, and hopefully, maybe, some of you. Still, that is the sign of a good book I guess! I’ll leave you with this wonderful piece of advice from an old witch, Miss Tick…

“If you trust in yourself… And believe in your dreams… And follow your star… You’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy. Goodbye”

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