199. Le Pape

The Hierophant, reversedIt’s worth mentioning again in going through this Tarot series that I do not approach the cards from the standpoint of divination (i.e., fortune telling). As an atheist, I do not believe in divine or supernatural forces, especially those that may guide our fates. That some force or thing created the universe with us in mind, and that arbitrary positions of cards, stars or planets can somehow foretell a future or course of action to take is silly, at best—narcissism, at worst.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about life goals and directions, as what I’ve been doing job and living-wise has not been bringing me joy or satisfaction. Quite the opposite. This summer, during a moment of particular distress and depression, a friend of mine offered to do a Tarot reading for me. He is also an atheist, and approaches Tarot from a similar analytical perspective. It was he who first suggested that Tarot was really collaborative storytelling; that the cards themselves describe general but universal aspects of the human experience around which a codified “school” of reading and interpretation was defined.

I’ve always been deeply fascinated by Jungian psychology, and in particular the archetypal. As a storyteller, I find myself drawing on these images myself—the wise old man or woman, the cunning trickster, the child, the hero, the dark shadow lurking just out of sight.

The thoughts and questions that I’ve been contemplating lately are on the epic (albeit personal, so not huge in the grand scheme) scale. I’m in the process of doing in a couple of years what most people do over the course of their lifetime—or at least in the process of growing up. A few years ago, I realized that the foundations of my life were fictions. Though there are some mythic truths to be found, the stories my parents and teachers told about a holy and supreme god who made me and the entire universe; who has a divine purpose and plan for my life; who is keeping notes on every thought, word, and deed to determine which afterlife I’ll enjoy or suffer for all eternity—none of it’s true. And now I’m faced with probably the most important question asked by any human being: Who am I?

It’s an insignificant question compared to most of the problems we face. And most people never really give it a second thought. But when you realize that every premise you’ve based your life on (and experience you’ve denied yourself) isn’t true, you start to wonder: What do I believe?

All that to say, Tarot has been helpful the past couple of weeks in bringing up and beginning to confront some of these issues and questions of purpose. What do I care about? What do I want to do? The cards can’t tell me the answers, but they introduce a certain level of randomness to get me mentally unstuck.

One of the big questions right now is that of career. Because I don’t really have one. I’ve been doing office admin work since college, but that’s a job. I don’t care about data entry, filing, document formatting, or any of the pointless shit I’ve done for other people over the years.

What I care about is storytelling. And art—specifically, music and writing.

Late this past summer, I decided to finally explore pursuing a master’s degree in one of those areas: music composition. I somewhat hurriedly (and haphazardly) put together three applications and submitted them this past fall. And they were rejected. These rejections made me question whether this was even the right path I should be taking.

The cards told me what I’ve always known at the core of my being, but have been afraid to acknowledge. Follow your passion.

The Hierophant is an interesting card. It’s also referred to as The Pope. It typically represents tradition, conservatism, discipline, heeding the status quo or social convention, and education. Wikipedia suggests that “it is a warning to the Querant to reexamine his or her understanding of the meaning of things; of the structure of the world; of the powers that be.”

Another interpretation of the reversed card (which is how I laid it out):

The Hierophant reversed is about breaking the rules and challenging the status quo. You no longer accept the rigid structures, tradition and dogma surrounding you, and now seek out opportunities to rebel and retaliate. You want to challenge ideas and concepts that you once thought of as written in stone. (BiddyTarot)

A friend of mine posted a comment yesterday on my previous entry: You didn’t get into grad school because that’s not really your best choice; you’re comfortable in music, and so you pursue it. You have great eloquence as a writer, but you didn’t pursue a master’s degree in writing. Why?

Frankly, I still wonder if I did the right thing in doing my undergrad in composition. Deciding on it was almost a last-minute decision. My original plan was majoring in creative writing, but my father suggested that I had real talent in music. But was that reason enough? Music was always easy for me; and while one’s natural talents should be considered, no field will successfully hold one’s interest without passion.

The ideal would be finding a program where I could somehow combine my love for creating music with my love for writing. This is why opera always felt like such a good fit. In addition to providing the music, I also provided the text and the story, although I’ve always felt like more of a musical playwright than a composer when it came to it.

So that’s where things currently stand, stuck between a hard and a rock place and unsure which direction to go. What comes to mind is (yet another) lyric from Sunday in the Park with George:

“I chose and my world was shaken. So what? The choice may have been mistaken. The choosing was not. You have to move on.”

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197. Huit d’Épées

huit-d'ÉpéesThe stories we are told as children are templates we unwittingly carry with us through childhood and into adulthood, on which we pattern most of our thinking and the way we ultimately live.

Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, my family watched television shows like Rescue 911. Stories like that of “baby Jessica” falling down a drain and getting stuck there for 59 hours, or a boy who was skewered by a pair of scissors after running with them, taught us valuable lessons for how not to get hurt — as well as instilling us with a certain sense of paranoia.

Anything could kill us.

Other stories were not so helpful. Having been brought up in church, I heard stories that fundamentally shaped the way I viewed the world, myself, and other people. To be a good Christian, I had to blindly accept everything in the Bible as absolutely true, ignoring all doubts, no matter how reasonable.

Anything “wrong” I did, regardless how insignificant, from telling a lie to disobeying my parents, put nails in Jesus’ feet and hands. And because God views all sin as equal (except for homosexuality), getting angry with someone is the same as killing them.

gatewaysCertain activities and pursuits were satanic gateways into our home and lives. (We had several books about this; one was called Turmoil in the Toybox. He-Man, the Smurfs, Care Bears, and G.I. Joe were all discussed.)

Non-Christians will ultimately attempt to lead good Christians off the path of righteousness. Demons were everywhere, spiritually blinding people (including Christians) to more easily drag them to Hell.

And there were always Bible references to back up these claims.

All of these narratives, and more, were crammed into my head from a very young age. Before the age of seven or so, the areas of the brain responsible for critical thinking haven’t developed yet. Dawkins writes in The God Delusion:

A child is genetically pre-programmed to accumulate knowledge from figures of authority. The child brain, for very good Darwinian reasons, has to be set up in such a way that it believes what it’s told by its elders, because there just isn’t time for the child to experiment with warnings like “Don’t go too near the cliff edge!” or “Don’t swim in the river, there are crocodiles!”

There is a condition I learned of recently called Religious Trauma Syndrome. Dr. Marlene Winell, who first identified RTS, likens it to PTSD, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder. It’s brought about when one leaves fundamentalist religion—and often families and entire communities—behind. Symptoms include:

  • Confusion, poor critical thinking ability, negative beliefs about self-ability & self-worth, black and white thinking, perfectionism, difficulty with decision-making;
  • Depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loneliness, difficulty with pleasure, loss of meaning;
  • Loss of social network, family rupture, social awkwardness, sexual difficulty, behind schedule on developmental tasks;
  • Unfamiliarity with secular world; “fish out of water” feelings, difficulty belonging, information gaps (e.g. evolution, modern art, music);

Dr. Winell writes on her website:

The doctrines of original sin and eternal damnation cause the most psychological distress by creating the ultimate double bind. You are guilty and responsible, and face eternal punishment. Yet you have no ability to do anything about it.

In essence, Religious Trauma Syndrome is the void left when the support structures of religion fall away, revealing the deep scars and toxic thought patterns that fundamentalist religion is adept at whitewashing with pat excuses or victim blaming. “You just don’t believe enough!”

Swords in Tarot are associated with action, force, power, ambition, change, and conflict. They’re also connected with thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs.

The number eight (at least in the Rider-Waite Tarot deck) describes boundaries and limitations, as well as inner strength and power of will.

In the Eight of Swords, a maiden is bound and blindfolded, isolated from the distant town and surrounded by swords. The sense is one of gloom, despair, and hopelessness. One website interprets the card this way:

Your “ego” represents the non-trusting, doubting, over-analytical part of your mind which is unable to make any decisions… you have restrained yourself from activity long enough, avoiding the present by trying to convince yourself that there are no alternatives. These beliefs keep you hemmed in—they always provide reasons why nothing will work… You are not being held back by direct force, but by your training – this belief in your own helplessness and your blind acceptance of what you have been taught… Recognize that nothing prevents you from leaving—you are bound only by your own “illusions.”

For ages, my sense of self-worth and my self-image have been colored by stories from my childhood that told me my only value was in Jesus’ death. Nothing about me was inherently good. My purpose in life had been decided by God; to not seek that purpose was arrogance.

Self-denial is a cardinal virtue. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness.” I attempted to do this by shutting down my id, especially once my libido kicked in. Consequently, I struggle with actually wanting anything, or making decisions. I fear emotions, especially pride. I constantly doubt myself and my capability.

However, my perfectionist drive knows no bounds. For example, during a piano lesson in college, I burst into tears after failing one portion of the piano proficiency exam: black key minor scales. By extension, I was a failure in every other area of my life.

Actress Natasha Lyonne said of recovering from heroin addiction: “Not only do you have to smash down the house, but you have to then take out the Indian burial ground underneath the foundation of the house and then begin to rebuild.”

Actress Julia Sweeney describes her deconversion as having to “change the wallpaper of my mind.”

Mine felt more like burning the house to the ground.

Yet the message of the Eight of Swords is that the mental prison of my parents’ religion is only an illusion.

Time for some new stories.

196. Six de Coupes

Le_Six_de_Coupes_inverséMost years I skip observing my birthday entirely, concealing its very existence from friends and relations. Unlike most people, I don’t enjoy celebrating my birthday. Frankly, it feels like getting a participation award than a celebration of life, the general tone being: “Hooray, you didn’t die or get yourself killed!”

Growing up homeschooled, birthday celebrations were limited to immediate family. I never invited friends over to celebrate as I had none. I don’t remember if I’d even wanted one, or known of such things. Truth is, we were an insular family. As I got older and started making friends, there was always the fear that if I invited anyone that no one would come, so I never bothered. I’ve always had that expectation of others.

In college, my best friend Emily attempted to throw a surprise birthday party for me. I guessed this was what she was up to and consequently waited until the last minute to go, essentially standing up my own party. According to her, I dressed everyone down upon arrival, though I remember only taking her aside to sternly reiterate that “I don’t do parties.”

For my twenty-fourth birthday, I did invite several friends for a party and was shocked when dozens of people actually came. One of my friends even wrote a song enumerating my quirkier and more endearing qualities. I was, in some ways, very close to being… moved by it.

The last time anyone threw me a birthday party was in 2011, the infamous evening when my heart was irreparably broken and I renounced my faith. Seriously, it was bad. Consequently, for the last three years, I’ve forbidden any observance of my birthday.

When I was dating Jason last year, I don’t recall if we even did anything for my birthday. We did go to my sister’s house for dinner and was shocked at how well that went. But, as usual, he wasn’t feeling good, so I didn’t even get birthday sex that weekend. Just like every other year. Last night I learned that Jason is now dating someone, and they look very happy. That was a special feeling, still being single a year later, not to mention currently laid off from temp work.

This year, despite still feeling depressed, I decided to get together with some close friends. It was nice to know that people do care, but it was still… uncomfortable. I don’t really know what to do with that kind of attention. I’m used to getting noticed for the things that I do—music, writing, performance, etc—but not for merely existing. Frankly, I don’t understand why anyone enjoys my company, or thinks I’m worthy of their time and attention. Even today, I can still hear my parents’ voice: If people really knew who you are, they wouldn’t like you…

On Saturday, I did a Tarot reading for myself as a way of “checking in.” In the cross part of the spread was a vertical line of cups – Six of Cups below and Three of Cups above, both reversed – and a horizontal line of pentacles – King of Pentacles on the left; reversed Two of Pentacles on the right. In the center was The Sun, crossed by The Hermit.

Cups typically represent “the emotional level of consciousness and are associated with love, feelings, relationships and connections.” Pentacles “cover material aspects of life including work, business, trade, property, money and other material possessions” as well as “the physical or external level of consciousness and thus mirror the outer situations of your health, finances, work, and creativity.”

Reversed, cups suggest “being overly emotional or completely disengaged and dispassionate, having unrealistic expectations and fantasizing about what could be.” Also, “there may be repressed emotions, an inability to truly express oneself and a lack of creativity.”

The Six of Cups is a card of nostalgia, childlike love and generosity, and a carefree, naïve outlook on life. Reversed, though:

… [it] may indicate that you are clinging on to your past… it suggests that you may have had unrealistically rosy ideas about a particular stage of life, based on your dreams and ideals from when you were younger… Or you may be disappointed that you have reached a particular age but have not fulfilled your childhood dreams just yet…. Your ideas and beliefs that were established in the past may be prohibiting your progress. Use your past as a guide for your future, and focus on living in the present.

I delayed breaking up with Jason last March for months, terrified about being single after 30. Who would want a guy like me whose best years are already behind him? There’s a myth in the gay community that a man’s shelf life expires after 30—or earlier.

However, what I realized this weekend was that it’s not that I feel old. Rather, its more that I’m disappointed with where I am, having little to show for having lived thirty-one years. In many ways I’ve had to start over, figuring out who the hell I am after my Christian identity imploded. I’d planned after college to go get my Master’s in composition. Though I’m taking steps to make that a reality now, I’m worried those years spent aimless and wandering will work against me.

I’m frustrated that I still haven’t found a guy who I’m compatible with, that Midwestern gays have been utterly disappointing, but that relocating isn’t financially feasible. I’m frustrated over having unwittingly played matchmaker for virtually everyone else in my life, while no one has been able to do that for me. I lived with my sister for six months, during which she met her husband. All of my flatmates (current one included) found their partners after living with me. Every guy I’ve ever dated is now with someone long-term.

The message of the Six of Cups is to let go of the past. It’s difficult to do that, however, when the past is haunting me with virtually every step. Perhaps I need to meditate on The Sun.