Firebird Princess, Costume Illustration for Russian Ballet, Leon Bakst 1910
La Miseria by Cristobal Rojas, 1886
***The following reading of the Death card is excerpted from the mini lit mag Queen of Cups. This week’s issue can be read in entirety at the link. You can subscribe to Queen of Cups for free. Issues are delivered every Wednesday to your inbox. ***
I don’t usually shuffle the deck and pick the weekly card feeling like I need some kind of guidance or a relevant message. I usually just shuffle and pick, take what we get and set to work. This week, however, I found myself shuffling slowly, heavily. After several stressful, anxious, angry, post-election days, a torpor, a complete lassitude, had settled over me. I shuffled absentmindedly and picked a card about three or four from the top of the deck, without much thought. I was surprised to see the Death card and immediately recognized it as appropriate and powerful. I’m not going to be able to help putting this card in the context of recent events. I would like QOC to be as much of a haven as possible, where we can all think about art, focus on art, read good literature, write a little and have some spiritual/philosophical fun with the tarot, a place to be introspective and centered. But….. Sometimes the complicated and challenging aspects of life intrude, and art can’t really be separated from life anyway, nor would we want it to. Many of us have been knocked off our centers and spiritually dislocated, come face to face with our own fear, anger, and helplessness, and, sometimes even more painfully, face to face with the fear, anger, helplessness and suffering of those around us who we love, respect, and wish to support. Although the appearance of the Death card in B films always portends doom, Death in the tarot doesn’t signify literal, physical death, but a powerful metaphor. Metaphor is another reason I love the tarot. The Death card can be read in both positive and negative ways depending on the context but also because the idea of death as change contains both positive and negative elements. Both readings see Death as an ending, an inexorable force which may feel overwhelming, a time of significant transition and transformation. If we accept this analogy, there is also likely to be struggle, fear and pain. The idea of denying death or forestalling it isn’t really relevant. Literal death is not swayed by either denial or reasoning. This card is certainly speaking to what many of us lived through on November 8th. The election of any new president and handing of power from one to the next is always a mini-death in the metaphorical sense. There’s trepidation as we watch this fragile construct called America enact its every four-year ritual. This year there’s a sense of dread in half the population, and the very fact that the population of our country is literally split in two over its beliefs, ideals and direction is heightening this dread. Half of us are mourning the impending loss of advocacy and care for our environment, health, education, religious freedoms, equal rights, tolerance, liberty, and moral fiber. Many of us feel afraid for ourselves and even more afraid for friends and family who, because of their skin color, or sexual orientation, are more vulnerable to being targeted when hate speech incites violence. I have taken comfort in friends telling friends ‘I’ve got your back’. Not a cliche in this context, but a real promise that’s not easy to make. I’ve got your back, as in: I will call out racism when I see or hear it. I’ve got your back, as in: I will call out misogyny and homophobia when I see or hear it, I’ve got your back as in: if a Muslim registry is established we will all register as Muslim, I’ve got your back: I will use my talents, my energy and resources in the fight against fundamental injustice, I’ve got your back: I will stand beside you because, as many of us know from experience, we’re stronger and safer in groups. We, writers and artists, are in a unique position to use our work on behalf of humanity, for equality, fairness, integrity. Art-making is truth-telling, which in itself is a powerful and subversive act. You don’t have to write activist or political poetry for a poem to send a profound message about the human condition. And it’s also desirable for art and craft to sometimes be a balm, an object of beauty, joy, and gratitude, that allows its viewer to breathe deeply and feel, for a moment at least, that life is going to be ok. It’s alright to feel that in the presence of death. We should offer each other, our readers, our viewers, and ourselves, that empathy. I felt this as I worked on the doll I donated to the Standing with Standing Rock fundraiser I told you all about last week. I created her in the days leading up to the election and half of election day itself. The blog post I wrote with photos of the process received a powerful response. People need art in dark times. They need to make art and interact with art. Some of the warmest, most genuine, and bonded groups I have spent time with were informal ones come together around art, craft and writing. We need to keep doing these things on small and large scales and count whatever good results as more light in the darkness. An ancient and enduring ritual of death is that of sitting vigil, from the Latin wakefulness. A loved one commits to sit, awake, beside the bed of the dying for comfort and to bear witness to the life and death of this one individual. It is a commitment to being present, seeing what has to be seen, feeling what has to be felt and staying put. Sitting vigil occurs in non fatal struggles too, as when we sit with a person severely depressed, heartbroken, in physical or emotional pain, the woman in labor, the loved one betrayed or spiritually bereft. It’s one of the hardest roles to fill and one of the most basic. It is a job that has often been taken-up by women. I have sat vigil in nearly all of these ways in my life. I like to think of sitting vigil as the act of space holding, one person holding a forcefield of safety and love around another who is too devoid of lifeforce, weak, or in pain to do this for herself, but also holding a space of reverence for the hard work of suffering, letting go, being human. I think this is what the Death card is calling us to do. There are days of action ahead, they’re knocking at the door, right now we take time to sit vigil for each other and for the loss of something greater.
The week before election day I was asked by a local herbalist friend if I would be interested in donating one of my poetry collections to be auctioned off at a Standing With Standing Rock fundraiser, to be held this Saturday, in support of the Standing Rock Reservation and the Dakota Access Pipeline protest. My small town just waged, and won, a battle of our own against Kinder Morgan and a proposed gas pipeline which would have torn through the working farmland, protected forests and waterways of western Massachusetts. One of our town selectman was arrested at an anti-pipeline protest in DC. A local timber framer constructed a Thoreau-like cabin on a friend’s property, which was in the proposed pipeline’s path, as a form of non-violent protest. It seemed everyone did something in protest or in support of protesters. Now, the rural communities that would have been violated as a result of a pipeline in my neck of the woods are throwing support behind protesters in North Dakota: sending food and warm clothing, bringing supplies and raising money. So, when I was asked to donate a book I wholeheartedly said ‘yes’ and then ‘I can make and donate a doll too’. Me and my big ideas! That’s how I found myself focused on wool and needles in the days leading up to the election.
I have been making needle felted dolls for about 8 years. The process of needle felting is fairly simple, needles with barbs on the end are poked repeatedly into loose wool resulting in a tangling and interlocking of the wool fibers, otherwise known as felt. Many people are familiar with ‘wet felting’ where the wool is felted in a process involving hot water, soap and agitation. That’s a quicker process, but can’t be applied to the making of a doll. This is the first time I took photos throughout the process. I began with a few bags of wool in different colors and about 12 (non consecutive) hours later had a little lady. On Tuesday night when I was feeling stunned and sick, along with half of the American population, I felt really grateful that I had spent the the previous days focused on art-making, creating a symbol of serenity, kindness and nurture. I made this doll and had her out the door on deadline, so didn’t get to spend much time with her, or name her, which I sometimes do. I’ll say a few more things about the process: I always use Merino wool for the head/face of the doll. Only Merino results in a smooth, refined look. This time I tea-dyed the Merino. Her hair is mohair from an Angora goat named Nora I owned years ago. Her face is tinted with pastel chalks, applied with a small paintbrush. She is 100% wool. She’s holding a nest containing one white egg, also wool. The body is only felted enough to hold together, but her face is heavily-felted to hold her features and feels hard like a small ball. The making of the face is the most time-consuming and stressful part of the process. As you can see in the photos, even when she begins to look like a person, her features transform again and again until she reaches her final form. I’m pleased to share these photos of the process with you. The differences between the photos near the end of the process are pretty subtle. If you look closely you’ll see the point at which I shaded around her eyes and how that adds dimension and completes the look. Love and peace to all.
Every Wednesday in Queen of Cups I pull a tarot card of the week and give both a general reading and one tailored to artists and writers. This week’s card is Page of Wands. I’ve included the reading for artists and writers below. But, you can read the whole issue and subscribe all for free!
Page of Wands for Writers and Artists: This card is pure creativity for creativity’s sake, it’s experimentation, play, making without judgement, spending the day not only painting but dwelling in your imagination the way children do in imaginative play. As adults we don’t marvel enough at the ability of children to imagine worlds, sustain them, and then act within the worlds they’re imagining. I can see my boys at seven-years-old, wandering around the yard holding some kind of prop: lego creation, deflated beanie baby, stick, (maybe a beanie baby on a stick) or whatever was at hand, sometimes mumbling quietly, other times running, crouching, jumping off of rocks and stumps, or striking odd poses, all happening in a world that was a mix of the physical one in front of them and some other imaginary world being created on the spot. Think of the creative stamina and power in that! The same behavior in an adult is bound to be labeled eccentricity, escapism, or delusion. But for an artist, that ability is pure gold, and I don’t mean the monetary kind. I’d argue that the ability to create worlds and then act in them, a kind of wakeful lucid dream, is true magic, the vestigial whispers of which writers tap into and readers respond to in such works as The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter books and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy, among others. This was a magical power we once wielded with complete confidence and faith and have all but lost with maturity. It’s heartbreaking for a parent to witness the first falterings of imaginative magic in their children. The day comes when your child goes through the motions with legos and beanie babies, makes the sound effects, imagines the storyline, but can’t seem to fully enter the imaginative world. You see him sitting on the bedroom floor surrounded by the props and realize he knows he’s just sitting on the bedroom floor with a clutter of toys. I guess it boils down to a growing consciousness that comes with maturity, but from the outside looks like loss, a death. I can barely remember what it feels like on the inside. Without the intrusion of consciousness and the loss of our early imaginative magic, we wouldn’t have Harry Potter, because that series is both a striving back for its author and the fulfillment of a deep need for its readers. Our imaginations and creative abilities do come back, just in a more refined, mature, productive, some might argue less potent, form. We naturally move away from the desire to swing sticks at imaginary monsters, to less pure, often more creatively ambitious, forms of imaginative play. Those years of possessing magical creativity can never be fully retrieved, but we couldn’t be adult artists without that apprenticeship and without the loss. That emptiness makes us yearn and work to restore something of our former abilities, resulting in art. Page of Wands reminds us that every human has artistic potential in any given moment, as a birthright, that creativity and connecting through creativity are soul-healing, dignifying acts.
Ata Kando, 1953
Queen of Cups Issue Twenty-Four is ready for viewing on TinyLetter. You can subscribe for free to receive weekly issues, every Wednesday, in your inbox. This week’s featured writer is poet Virginia Konchan and the tarot card is Five of Wands. Future issues will feature: Anders and Kai Carlson-Wee, Martha Silano, Leslie Wheeler and Jennifer K Sweeney.
I’ll be reading with fellow Massachusetts Cultural Council Awardees D M Gordon, Heather Kamins, Richard Michelson, and Elizabeth Witte tonight October 19 at 7 p.m. at the Forbes Library in Northampton, Mass. Each poet reads for 10 minutes, so kind of a poetry tapas. There will be books for sale and signing after the reading.
Queen of Cups Issue Twenty-One is up! This issue features two poems by poet Jennifer Jean, The Lovers card and the weekly writing prompt. Subscribe for free to receive issues featuring one contemporary writer, a tarot card reading, and a writing prompt every week delivered to your inbox. This TinyLetter mini lit mag is formatted for email, the archived issue linked above is slightly altered from the original. Subscribe to read Queen of Cups in its proper format.
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