Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. Has Witch City Lost Its Way?

Kathryn Miles | Boston Magazine | October 22, 2021 | 3,758 words

Modern-day witchcraft is big business, and Salem, Massachusetts, is its epicenter. Witch-themed boutiques along Essex Street sell everything a 21st-century witch needs, from tarot card decks and spell kits to $300 custom wands. Stores like these cater not only to self-identifying witches and warlocks, but also Halloween tourists making their pilgrimage to the city each October and people claiming ancestral ties to Colonial settlers (or those accused as heretics in the 1692 trials). Kathryn Miles captures a festive, bustling local scene, but are shop owners simply commodifying a spiritual practice? And is there a better way for Salem to address and educate people about its ugly past? Miles’ own ancestral history is marked with a dark moment in 1660 — one that has left generations of her family to make sense of their legacy. She examines present-day Salem from this perspective, and asks: “Is a witch-based tourism economy the best way to honor the legacy of executed individuals who weren’t even witches in the first place?” With Halloween just days away, this Boston magazine story is a fitting read, and offers a glimpse into Salem’s lively community — as well as the past that it grapples with. —CLR

2. Aftermath

Briohny Doyle | The Griffith Review | October 24, 2021 | 3,500 words

“Aftermath” begins and ends with scenes set on water — an oyster farm on a lake, a rental house on a bay. These fluid bookends are apt for an essay that ruminates on the illusion of before and after that we all lean on to cope with uncertainty. Whether we’re responding to COVID-19, climate change, or personal grief — all of which come to bear in Briohny Doyle’s gorgeous essay — humans tend to yearn for the way things were or the way they might be, for an idealized past or dreamed-of future, for “fixed points” and “the simplicity of distance.” Doyle challenges readers, and herself, to instead bear witness to accrual and to care for ourselves in the context of the ongoing. “Fragile life,” Doyle writes. “All we have to work with. At least as precious as it is unimportant.” We must protect ourselves, she continues, from becoming “food for bad ideas.” I couldn’t help but think of a line in King Lear: “Ripeness is all.” When you’re reminded of Shakespeare, you know you’re reading something special. —SD

3. Shadow City, Invisible City: Walking Through an Ever-Changing Kabul

Taran Khan | LitHub | October 21, 2021 | 2,667 words

Taran Khan writes of friends and acquaintances betrayed by the donor agencies and NGOs who ghosted longtime Afghan employees pleading for help to flee Taliban rule after the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan in August. Many Afghans now fear the Taliban’s retribution for collaborating with the agencies who left them behind, texts and email pleas unanswered. “My fellow Americans, the war in Afghanistan is now over,” declared President Biden on television. Those the U.S. government and NGOs abandoned in their hasty retreat now face new and more insidious dangers. Khan writes: “My grandmother, who had grown up in northern India in a home marked by rigid gender segregation, told me how she used to listen to the poets who frequented the male quarters of her house through cracks in the wall. In the days after the Taliban’s takeover, I listened to Kabul through cracks in the silence that descended on the city. In the voices of friends I could reach on the phone, and behind their fear and their laughter, their assurances and their hesitating requests, I heard the streets and the soundtrack of the city’s everyday life, away from the transient media glare.” —KS

4. Under The Influence

Stephen J. Lyons | The Sun Magazine | October 1, 2021 | 1,672 words

A certain swath of people can relate to being a child left in a vehicle while dad drinks beer in the dim, smoky interior of a local pub. (This didn’t happen to me, though my best friend said she taught herself dozens of yo-yo tricks during those long afternoons.) At The Sun Magazine, Stephen J. Lyons recounts waiting for his beloved blue-collar, stogie-smoking grandpa to emerge from the bar. Lyons witnesses his usually quiet grandpa change after a few pub stops. As the truck speeds over ridges and around curves in rural Iowa, grudges and grievances bubble to the surface, sucked out the window of the rusty pick-up truck as his grandpa spits and mutters about wrongs and injustices. The love and loyalty Lyons feels for his grandpa reminded me of my own childhood, times when my dad was not ok to drive but did so anyway after late nights at relatives’ places across town, times when adult hubris (I’m fine!) and the need to blow off steam from another week at a dirty, unsatisfying job outweighed better judgement. This piece reminds me that we all fail one another from time to time, knowingly and unknowingly. And that perhaps because of that failure, we need love and grace all the more. —KS

5. Sci-Fi Icon Neal Stephenson Finally Takes on Global Warming

Adam Rogers | Wired | October 26, 2021 | 4,348 words

Neal Stephenson isn’t the sort of writer you profile. He’s the sort of writer you think about profiling, sure, but he’s not going to invite you into his life or discuss the vagaries of craft or unburden himself of his deep-seated fears. What he’s going to do, instead, is write. That’s what he’s done since 1984 — big ol’ books that tend to huddle together under the “science fiction” umbrella but are as urgent as they are speculative. His latest, Terminal Shock, might be the most urgent yet, attempting to envision what would happen if people actually tried a theoretical process called solar geoengineering to cool off the planet. So if you’re going to profile Neal Stephenson, you’re going to need to figure out his whys and his hows, not his whos and his whats. Good thing, then, that the person doing the profiling happens to be one of the few journalists around as well-versed in genre fiction as they are in climate change. Rogers, an accomplished science journalist, aims his entire arsenal at making this a piece about the science of imagination — about how not to give up on the (admittedly bleak) future, how to turn real science into real hope, and what it means for someone as lauded and prolific as Stephenson to continue pushing us to team up and just figure this damn thing out already. —PR