Category Archives: Tarot

The Heat Death of a Wandering Star

A fortune teller in Northern California looked at my palm and said, “You’re going to lead an unnaturally long life.”  Then she slid my money back across the table and added, “I feel bad for you.”  This was in 2008 or 2009.  My memory of the year is less distinct than the mournful expression on her face, how she pulled off her chintzy Madame Sofia veil, leaned back, and lit a cigarette as if to say, sorry, kid, that’s how it is.

I was supposed to pay her $30 for 30 minutes, but we sat there for almost two hours while she read my tarot cards.  By the time she got around to looking at my hands, she’d already told me three important things about my future.  I was going to travel across an ocean.  I was going to do things no one in my family had ever done.  And I was going to outlive everybody I knew.  As of 2018, two of those three predictions have come true.

It’s amazing how quickly life can change.  You leave the house every day and say, this is the job I do.  This is the market where I shop.  This is the person I live with.  These are the faces I see as I walk down my street.  This is the field with daisies nodding in the wind.  This is me.  For the moment, at least, this is me.

And if you succeed, if you’re healthy and disciplined and dedicated and proficient, if you don’t weaken and get that regular colonoscopy and save your money, you might last long enough to see all your variables change.  Then you’ll say, this is me—isn’t it?  But you won’t know how to answer.  You’ll remember the fortune teller saying, “I feel bad for you,” and you’ll understand what she meant.  You won’t know how to recognize yourself.  You’ll be a survivor.  And nobody actually ever wants that.  The last man standing is, by definition, all alone.

Some of us die and are reborn in a single lifetime.  In my four-and-a-half decades, I’ve already lived several full lives, played roles that had perfectly formed inciting incidents, climaxes, and denouements, which in earlier times or in other places could have described the total breadth and depth of a person’s lived experience.  I’m 44 years old, not too old but not that young, either.  Most days, I look 10 – 15 years younger than that.  Is that good?

I spend a lot of time lost in my own head, reading, walking around and looking at things.  And I’ve managed to orchestrate a life where I can do that.  I can become fascinated by very simple experiences, the wind in different kinds of trees, for example, or the way sound echoes on the canal beneath my bedroom window.  There’s a lot going on everywhere you look.  Sometimes, it’s hypnotic.  Sometimes, it’s beautiful.  Sometimes, it makes me want to scream for a real long time.  The world is too much.  It isn’t interested in making sense or being rational.  We’re the ones who make it matter.  But do we really?

I don’t recommend going to fortune tellers very often.  If they’re good, you’ll know too much.  If they’re bad, you’ll be wasting your money.  If they’re stupid, you’ll feel stupid.  And if they’re clever, you’ll feel even more stupid.  A fortune teller is like a bad pizza.  You paid for it.  So you’re going to eat it.  You might feel disgusted afterwards.  You might not want to talk about the experience.  You might want to put it away in the file labeled Decisions About Which I Will Feel Forever Ashamed and vow never again.  But you’ll probably be back. 

It’s how magical things work.  It’s how art works.  You go see the performance piece at the museum and it has some guy drenched in urine and suspended upside-down by fish hooks from the ceiling for hours over plaster of Paris horses having sex.  And you think, wow, that is neither pleasing to the eye nor conceptually interesting.  It’s pretentious and it’s trying way to hard to be something that isn’t boring.  You write scathing things about it on your blog.  You try to put it out of your mind because you know that every minute you spend thinking about it is a minute you’ll never get back.  But six months later, you go, I wonder what’s showing at the museum.  So do you want anchovies on your plaster horsefucking pizza this time?  Of course you do.  Want to know the future?  Just let me shuffle these cards.

I took piano lessons as a kid.  I was very serious about them.  My teacher was a professor in the music department at the university.  He was a lot like Mr. Rogers.  He radiated that improbable blend of whipsmart intelligence shrouded in simplicity and humor.  He was a remarkable man, a truly gifted person who knew how to appreciate life.  And one of the things he really appreciated was teaching children classical piano.  I learned an immense amount about how to be a decent human being just by spending time with him. 

I remember us sitting in a room with about 50 grand pianos.  He played a single note and we listened to it until it passed away.  Then we discussed its shape, its color, its temperature.  There was an entire life in that sound, a whole universe from the big bang to the last chapter of the Book of Revelation with dinosaurs and empires and prophets and an Industrial Revolution and fiber optics and climate change and insane politicians and Mad Max and the heat death of a wandering star.  All we had to do was listen.  And, like gods, we knew we could always play another note—that, in fact, we or someone of our great pantheon would play another one and would inevitably bring another cosmos into being.

Years later, far away at a different university, I’d study the Metaphysical Poets and I’d encounter Thomas Traherne’s poem, “Shadows in the Water.”  It contains these lines:

I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seeméd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

And I’d write a half-baked undergraduate essay on the metaphysics of sound as expressed through the semiotics of Traherne’s mirror imagery.  Fabulous.  The only important thing about it was that I remembered listening to my piano teacher play that note when I read “Thus did I by the water’s brink/ Another world beneath me think” and thought: exactly.  Our second selves these shadows be.  The gods look down from Olympus and see their reflections in us as we, in turn, look and listen to our own universes encapsulated in the breadth of a single note—as above, so below.  Quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius.  I’ve lived many lives, been reborn into many universes.  Godlike, I’ve brought universes into being.

All being depends on context, which is to say, on the existence (meaning) of a universe.  One of the many reasons I love Carl Sagan is that he said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”  This is as true for the pie as it is for the pie maker—they both depend on the existence of a universe to contain them and give them meaning.  By extension, if the pie maker is the last man standing in his universe, all meaningful correlation between the existential condition of the pie and that of the universe eventually breaks down. 

In short, one can only eat one’s own apple pies in solitude for so long before one goes insane.  The existence of a pie implies both future and past in space: in the future, someone will sit in a landscape and eat the pie which the pie maker made in the past.  Because of this, if you succeed at the game of life, I will feel bad for you. 

You will outlast your universe; your apple pies will no longer be meaningful.  You will survive and will have no one for whom you can make an apple pie or anything else.  You will see the sky fall, the stars burn out, the destruction of the world.  You will be haunted by memories of times long past and people you loved and wars that no one remembers.  That is a truly horrible fate.  Do you want to win this game?  For your sake, I sincerely hope not.

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Of Atonement and Troth

When is it time to pay our debts?

Other ways of asking this question are: what do we live for? What is our highest value? What is the foremost goal of our lives? When will we know if we have reached it to satisfaction? When will we know that reaching it is no longer an option? And then what will we do?

Everyone has the power to choose the self-determined life because the choice is internal.

I believe that we all determine the objectives of our lives. We can make ourselves subservient to the values and definitions of others. Nevertheless, the root decision is always ours to make somewhere, sometime in life. It is an internal act. It takes place in the mind and in the heart.

Choosing to live according to someone else’s rules (if only by default) may allow us to avoid a degree of painful awareness (and perhaps continue on in a kind of bovine simplicity until old age or circumstances end us), but self-determination is a far more dynamic and dangerous prospect.

When we consciously and deliberately identify what we believe is our highest value—when we do so with a broad and deep understanding of the public and private forces that have shaped our worldview over time—we are able to make rational empowered decisions that may seem terrifying and even arbitrary to those still in the cattle car.

Self-responsibility necessitates self-atonement.

We become responsible for our decisions, for the immense degree of inner freedom that comes with self-determination. We are in charge. We are the author of our success or failure. And if the ship sinks because of our choices, we are obligated to make amends somehow. This is true atonement—not to an imaginary deity or to a social expectation, not to another person who has power over us, but to ourselves, to our personal ideals, to the values we have chosen, to the personal definitions we have written. We owe it to ourselves to atone because only we can pay for what we’ve done or failed to do.

Otherwise, we admit that we were never truly serious about mastering our lives. We accept that we are running away in shame; that we are untrue; that we have failed to grasp what is at stake. We embrace our essential weakness as a definitive attribute. We admit that external forces have dominated us after all. And we place ourselves below the aforesaid thoughtless cattle who voluntarily gave up control over their lives. We had the power, but we were not equal to it.

Atoning for failure affirms nobility and strength of character. The opposite is also true.

One option is noble (I will atone for my failure and thereby restore myself and the universe—I am what I say I am and the actions I took, even if they were misguided, still carry meaning). The other is ignoble (I refuse to accept responsibility when it is inconvenient or painful to do so—I am a hypocrite and therefore false).

Just as only we can make the necessary sacrifice, only we can determine the sort of sacrifice that should be made. However, I believe that we know in our hearts what form of atonement is needed. It doesn’t require much deliberation.  For example, in the Hávámal, Odin speaks of the sacrifice of himself to himself in order to acquire the Runes (symbolizing true wisdom):

I trow I hung on that windy Tree
nine whole days and nights,
stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,
myself to mine own self given,
high on that Tree of which none hath heard
from what roots it rises to heaven. (137)

He would rather be wise than comfortable. He voluntarily suffers in order to transcend the limitations imposed by circumstances. In this sense, self-sacrifice (especially in the sense of sacrificing to restore oneself, to make oneself whole again) is a heroic, godlike act. It is superhuman in that it upholds the primacy of one’s will / word.  This is troth in the ancient sense.

In short: if I have determined the course of my life, I will accept the outcome. I will correct my failures just as I enjoy my successes. And I will do so honestly—with the wisdom (the realization of authentic experience) that comes from the troth of who I have decided to be.   I am my own redeemer.  I will act in accordance with my word and it is from this that I shall be known.  It is with this that I shall transcend my own limitations and restore the world.

“Without noble purpose we are nothing.” – Frank Herbert