How many nights must it take
one such as me to learn
that we aren't, after all, made
from that bird which flies out of its ashes,
that for a man
as he goes up in flames, his one work
to open himself, to be
—Gallway Kinnell, from "Another Night in the Ruins" (Body Rags)
Last weekend I had a tarot card reading. I've gone to psychics before, in South Florida, where I'm from, and even, once, to Cassadaga, a psychic village. And I realize that there is a distinction between psychics and tarot readers in methodology, but in my mind I've always lumped them together, under the umbrella of the occult—and I've rejected them as such, pursuing it only as a form of amusement or as a chance to bond with my mom or a girlfriend, and preferring instead the idea that the universe is indifferent.
Yet I was persuaded to get a reading after meeting Judy, after many years of eschewing it — all virtue. She set up shop at one of my favorite weekend spots, a red bungalow in downtown Dunedin that serves organic food and offers a large outside area for children to play while their parents enjoy their coffee.
Judy has thick, glossy black hair and wore it down, with a chunky braid accenting the right side of her head. She wore a short, breezy white dress that showed off her tan, and sandals. With her unlined face and slim physique, I guessed she was anywhere between forty and fifty (though she later hinted that she was much older).
What was more striking, however, was how calm she seemed, how in her body. Despite myself I was drawn to her, and when I asked her for a reading, she greeted me with a genuine, warm smile.
With my girls occupied by bubbles and a sand pit, the sunlight soft and comfortable, Judy and I settled on the front porch. She had two decks of cards to choose from. I chose one, and she began laying them out on the table in between us.
A pattern soon emerged. The cards that kept repeating were the Cups and the Swords. Most visceral was a card that showed a woman lying face down with at least ten swords in her back. Ominous as it seemed, Judy explained that it likely meant that I had done a lot of emotional legwork to overcome some turmoil and emerge a stronger, more evolved self, that I "died" to let the new self in. The Cups, she said, indicated that I was on the threshold of an even larger change. She told me that this was my last life and that in order to ascend fully, I would have to give up the remaining vestiges of my defenses and let go of being fearful and jaded. Only then would I be able to achieve a childlike wonder and joy, and, for its purity, a deeper connection with myself and others. To get there, my male and female selves would have to merge, meaning, more specifically, that all of the archetypes of each would need to become one.
The archetypes are something I am familiar with because of the Jungian phase I went through in my mid-twenties. After months of dissecting my dreams with a Jungian analyst, and after reading The Hero Within, I was able to identify the archetypes that exist within all of us, that are part of the "collective unconscious." (Though all that remains is a general sense of them now, as more than a decade has passed since I first learned about this, and I couldn't rattle them off with any accuracy today.)
Once the reading was finished, I thanked her, said good-bye, and collected my children. I had no immediate reaction; I just needed time to process it all.
I've been buying all of my kids' Christmas presents through Amazon, some of which are books. One of the authors I admire, Neil Gaiman, has a few children's books that he's written, though I've never read them. Neil Gaiman likes to tell scary stories, so I wanted to look them up and make sure that they wouldn't be anything too scary. I'm not opposed to scary stories; I've enjoyed reading them fairytales from the Brothers Grimm. But I've always wanted to make sure that if I expose them to something dark, it's something that manages that delicate balance between being scary and age-appropriate.
My Gaiman search led me to an article about a TED talk he gave in 2014 in which he discussed the psychology behind the appeal of scary stories. When asked why we tell ghost stories, he said:
We have been telling each other tales of otherness, of life beyond the grave, for a long time; stories that prickle the flesh and make the shadows deeper and, most important, remind us that we live, and that there is something special, something unique and wonderful about the state of being alive. Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It's always reassuring to know that you're still here; still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It's good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don't exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.
I remember that when I was a kid I loved ghost stories. Once, when I was eleven, I even manufactured a ghost story about a boy my age (whom I named Matt Monahan) who died a mysterious death and called upon me to solve his murder. When the weather was overcast, I put on my mother's trench coat and heels and walked up and down my block in the fog, listening to the clicking of my heels as I searched in vain for clues. One day I even walked to the police station that was near my house to let the officer manning the desk know that I was on the case and that if he had any files about this missing boy, I'd be happy to take a look. Although I'm sure he was amused (or maybe alarmed), he maintained a straight face and told me that he didn't have anything at the moment, but that he would let me know if he came across anything. I left him my home number.
I took the fantasy so far, in fact, that I even roped my friend Chrissy in. She lived one neighborhood over, and I convinced her that the best time to work on this case would be in the middle of the night, which would require us sneaking out of our houses. On the designated night, I made it out my bedroom window and onto my bike without incident, but Chrissy had apparently been caught. After circling my neighborhood a few times, I realized she wasn't coming, so I went home and to bed. (Chrissy wasn't allowed to be friends with me after that.)
I wasn't delusional. I didn't really believe in Matt Monahan or that I would be called upon to solve a murder mystery. Rather, everyone was just a player in my fantasy, and even after considering the fact that they might think I was weird, I didn't care. It was all just too appealing, exhilarating even. The sense of adventure. The chance to view a setting I'd otherwise be bored with with new eyes. This sense of my own power. This fantasy, this ghost story was a metaphor for my unconscious desires, so the appeal was huge. And, as Neil Gaiman suggested, it was just the right amount of scary.
Eventually, of course, I gave it up. Nowadays there's nothing invigorating about things I'm afraid of, and I'm afraid of a lot. In fact, the older I get, I've noticed, the more afraid I become. I'm afraid of losing my job. I'm afraid of one of my girls choking. I'm afraid of them running off and getting lost or abducted. I'm afraid of an axe murderer breaking into my house. I'm afraid of getting in a car accident. I'm afraid of my girls growing up to hate me. I'm afraid of being wrong. I'm afraid of failure. You get the idea.
But I also know that being too afraid is completely unproductive, and that working through your fears leads to growth. So now that I've had a week to process the tarot reading, and to remember what it was like when I embraced fear and existed in a pure place where I had not allowed my selfhood to be compromised by others' opinions of me, I feel ready for the big change that Judy saw coming my way. I'm ready to allow any remaining darkness to flip to light, to come from a place of vulnerability and authenticity at every opportunity, to tolerate and even embrace a controlled burn so that I can emerge anew.