This week I’m contemplating The Hanged Man, a Major Arcana card in the Tarot deck. The traditional meaning of the card is “life in suspension.” Not coincidentally, The Hanged Man is the title of my first book.
The Tarot illustrates archetypes, and archetypes, like stories, have many rich facets and shades. The meaning of such symbols is never cut and dried, and archetypes can always be understood in layers and intuitive connections.
For many years I’ve worked with Tarot cards every six weeks, and at least half the time I pull The Hanged Man out of a deck of 78 cards, thoroughly shuffled and cut, for a 10-card spread. It’s obvious this particular card carries an important message for me.
Life in suspension. What does that mean?
First, I have to decide what “life” means.
Life: Doing, having, being.
For 50 years I believed I had to make up for the fact of my being by doing and having. It’s only recently I’ve begun to support and appreciate my need and desire to just be. Gradually, I’m changing my focus and attention from having and doing to being.
Thinking or talking about just being — feeling, playing, expressing, being in my body, following my interests and desires — seems either ridiculously shallow or criminal, I’m not sure which. Maybe both together.
On the other hand, having and doing can certainly be shallow in the long run, and provide only a brief period of comfort and pleasure, at best.
Life in suspension. Being in suspension? As in I’m too busy doing and having to be?
That doesn’t sound good.
In my world, doing doesn’t count unless the doing is perfectly done. As perfection is a goal I never achieve, spending most of my time and energy doing seems like a bad investment.
As I explore and adopt minimalism, having is less and less important.
That brings us back to being.
Life in suspension describes those times during which we feel stuck. We might be in a job that doesn’t challenge us, an unhealthy relationship, or an addiction. We might feel trapped in indecision, fear, grief or financial struggles. We can spend years, decades, lifetimes with pieces of our lives in suspension while we wrestle with our demons.
The entirety of our lives is generally not in suspension at the same time. We might be very pleased to have healed a health problem, yet still have struggles with money. We might be happy at work but stuck in our personal relationships, or vice versa. We might function for years with a hidden addiction, or wrestle chronically with our weight.
The thing about being stuck is it doesn’t feel competent, attractive, effective or like success.
It feels like failure.
On the heels of failure are the hounds of guilt, shame and isolation.
But during those messy periods when our lives are in suspension and our feelings painful, what sort of invisible, underground growth and change is happening? What is hidden in that suspended interval that is regenerative, creative and fertile?
The Hanged Man wears an enigmatic smile in many Tarot decks. He’s hanging from one leg from the branch of a tree. Why does he smile? Why isn’t he thrashing and cursing, trying to get loose? Why is he peaceful? How did he get there, and how long must he hang? What will happen to him after he’s unfettered? Who hung him there in the first place, and why?
Life in suspension sounds like nothing is happening. Everything has stopped. Yet one of the things we can say about life with complete confidence is that it’s always changing.
I realize now my book, The Hanged Man, is at heart an examination of lives in suspension, or at least partly so. What happens to a mother who has murdered her children? That’s a life not so much in suspension as shattered, but what of her grief, her shame and her pain? How does one continue after such an event? What happens to a man who flees his home, his parents and his young wife, and is not able to stop running? What happens after we die? What’s happening while we’re waiting for spring, or for the baby to be born, or for a death?
Times of despair, illness, injury, grief, exile, and failure can make us feel stuck. We can’t seem to fix, change or get away from the tree in which we’re hanging upside down. Nothing seems to be happening and our discomfort goes on and on. Others fear us, or are repelled or uncomfortable because of our trouble. Failure of any sort is contagious. Nobody wants to be infected.
Yet suspended intervals are common to us all. We might pretend they’re not happening and hide them from others, but who hasn’t been through a time of failure, either one catastrophic event or many smaller ones? Who hasn’t spent time mired in grief, rage, addiction or indecision? Who hasn’t lost themselves in confusion or been paralyzed by fear?
That’s why The Hanged Man is such a powerful archetype.
The suspended interval doesn’t seem like rich ground for stories at first glance, but I’ve always been more attracted to the less popular and less prized side of life. I like the blood, the sweat and the wet spot. I like the harsh realities of bone and ash.
Years ago I started creatively exploring lives in suspension without ever thinking about it in those terms. It was a careless kind of play, inspired by my storytelling material. What happened to the characters from the beautiful old traditional tales I was telling after — or even before — the story I knew? When Rapunzel escaped the tower, where did she go? What did she do? What became of the prince the little mermaid loved?
Why is that rascally hanged man smiling?
In the suspended interval, decades long, of hiding my writing because I felt it was a shameful, unproductive waste of time and it earned no money, I accidentally started writing a book. Or, I should say, a series of books.
It didn’t seem like much was happening while I was living those years, though. I was just hanging on, living my life.
Now that life I was experiencing while nothing much was happening has become nearly two thousand pages of creative work.
I’ve never really thought much about vampires. I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a teenager, but I didn’t get into Anne Rice and I didn’t watch TV for nearly 20 years. When I came to Maine, my partner immediately set out to correct my cultural deprivation. He introduced me to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I fell in love with, which led to Angel. Then there was True Blood and Jace Everett’s sexy song, “I Want to do Bad Things With You,” along with a lot of other sultry Cajun music.
James Marsters as Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
The aspect of vampires I was familiar with was the archetypal one. We’ve all run into people like this. They’re the ones we walk away from with a feeling of having been drained, no matter how brief, inconsequential or seemingly innocent the interaction was. Sometimes it’s hard to pin down exactly how they manage to suck all the energy out of any given person or situation, but they do. They’re insatiable and dangerous. I suppose they might be sexy, too, but not in the straightforward, I-wanna-do-bad-things-with-you-way where you both get to have fun. They’re all about the fuel, and others are just fuel-dispensing appliances.
These vampire series, characters, actors and writers added a lot of good creative manure to my already robust interest in all things magical, archetypal and mythological. Lately I had an idea for a writing project within the frame of plants and trees with thorns, and I wanted to revisit vampires within that context.
Well! Little did I know what a goldmine I would find.
I have a well-used reference library of witchcraft, folklore, myth, legend, symbology, magic and occult, not to mention the Internet. Any kind of magic intersects with herbs and plants, so I have a lot of reference books covering those subjects as well. I began to think about thorny plants I’m familiar with. The most obvious, as they grow all over our land here in Maine, are brambles. Bramble, it turns out, is a lovely old-fashioned word meaning blackberries or raspberries. I began to research folklore surrounding brambles.
I happily juggled my laptop and handwritten notes. Books piled up on the floor around my chair. I lost track of time.
I discovered brambles are a specific (meaning remedy) for vampires. Who knew? If you are bothered by a vampire, you need only cut some bramble canes and lay them in front of your windows and on your threshold. When the vampire arrives in the dark hours to drink from you, it will be unable to pass the bramble canes until it counts every thorn. This task should keep it well occupied until sunrise, at which point it will be forced to decamp.
I was enchanted by the vision of a sensual, dark, hollow-cheeked vampire, intent on seduction and blood, hunched over outside the window trying to count the thorns on a bramble by the light of the moon. (Do mature (ahem) vampires need reading glasses for close-up work?) Picture his slumbering victim, young, palpitating, curving flesh on tempting display as she sleeps naked amid the tumbled sheets. So delectable! The smell of her flesh! The sweet throbbing pulse at her neck — and other places! Alas! He must stop to count the thorns. The cruelty of life! Or maybe I should say the cruelty of undeath.
How is it I’d never known that vampires had this particular compulsive side to their character? Why does no one ever talk about these important things?
This was too juicy a lure to ignore, so I temporarily abandoned my research on thorns and collected a new pile of books to see what else I didn’t know about vampires.
Photo by Anton Darius | @theSollers on Unsplash
Interestingly, the Christian cross and so-called holy water were not traditionally used to repel vampires. (All due respect to Buffy and Angel.) The vampire is an ancient universal archetype recognized well before Christianity in cultures all over the world.
That being said, there are several plants that assist in vampire protection, one of them being the old stand-by, garlic. This can be used fresh or dried. Another protective plant is peppermint. Presumably, vampires dislike the smell. The Element Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells suggests wearing fresh peppermint leaves around one’s neck in bed, and adds parenthetically that peppermint is an aphrodisiac. Perhaps part of the efficacy of this old spell is that one will not be alone in the bed.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Both garlic and peppermint can be used fresh or dried, in combination or singly. If you know from whence the vampire rises, garlic scattered over its grave should keep it firmly underground where it can do no harm. Peppermint oil is also said to be efficacious, applied topically to the skin or pillow (of the intended victim, not the vampire). Surprisingly, lilac oil is also recommended. This is quite hard to find even today, and very expensive. (How was this discovered, and where? How was the oil procured?) The spell clearly specifies it must be essential oil from the lilac, not a chemical perfume. Interestingly, a remedy for psychic vampires, as opposed to the coarser blood drinkers, was infused rosemary taken as a tea or used to bathe in.
Photo by Vincent Foret on Unsplash
Iron is very commonly used as protection against many otherworldly folk, and vampires don’t like it, either. An iron ring set with pearls is said to protect the wearer from vampires. (Why this combination? Where did this belief come from?) Also, if one takes more than 100 iron nails and hammers them into the ground over the vampire’s grave, it will not be able to rise. Similarly, in what is clearly an old bit of women’s witchcraft, if one drives nine wooden spindles into the ground over the grave three days after burial, the vampire will not be able to rise.
I liked all that, but many of these protections are quite similar to other specifics for various spooks, haunts, ghosts and fairy folk. I’ve saved the good stuff for last.
Photo by Manuel Sardo on Unsplash
It turns out everyone used to know vampires are obsessive compulsive! If one doesn’t happen to have brambles, fishing nets can be used at windows and doorways. In this case, the vampire has to stop and count the knots. Or, if you prefer, sieves can be used, because they have to stop and count — you guessed it — the holes. This makes me think about our modern screens. Here was I, thinking it was all about keeping out the bugs. Nobody ever told me we were keeping out vampires as well. Alternatively, one can sprinkle millet in the graveyard where a vampire is buried, and it won’t be able to leave until it counts every millet seed.
This changes things. I wonder if this is the vampires’ dirty little secret. Maybe all the dark brooding looks, swirling cloaks, drama and theater is just distraction from what they don’t want anyone to find out — that they’re compelled to count. It definitely dulls my frisson of erotic fear. I wanna do bad things with you — as soon as I count this. What if the vampire’s prey has freckles? It almost makes me feel sorry for them. Keeping secrets is hard work. Think of the relief when people switched over to Christian crosses and holy water and forgot about brambles, nets, millet and sieves (and freckles).
My absolute favorite vampire remedy, though, has nothing to do with counting. It involves the oldest cleaning and purification tool: running water. For this one, it’s necessary to know exactly where the vampire is buried. One must procure the vampire’s left sock. (The left sock, not the right. Is this further evidence of compulsivity? Do vampires label their socks left and right? Does one ask politely for the left sock, steal it while they sleep, or wrestle the vampire for it?) Fill the sock with dirt from the vampire’s grave and stones from the cemetery in which it’s buried. (What if it’s a sock with holes in it? Do vampires darn their socks?) Throw the sock into water running away from the area to be protected. Now you have banished the vampire from that area.
Finally, for all you peacemakers out there, here’s fokloric advice from the Romani people of Macedonia. Vampires, it transpires, love milk. Romani legend says if one makes regularly scheduled offerings of milk to a troublesome vampire, it will agree to leave a short list of people alone.
(This is beyond fascinating. What other traditions and folklore come from this group of people? Who were they? Do they still live tribally? Were their milking animals cows, sheep or goats? Do they have written or oral records? Why are they the only ones who figured out a peaceful coexistence practice regarding vampires? But no, that’s probably carrying it too far for this post. I can research that another time. Do they have protective spells against werewolves, I wonder? Hmmm …)
There you go. Now you know everything you need to know to protect yourselves from vampires. You’re welcome. I hope you’re half as delighted as I am by this esoteric lore.
Before I leave you this week, I do want to say that I am in no way minimizing or mocking the suffering of those who struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and like illnesses. I write this post in the spirit of playfulness and fun. Please accept it as such.
David Boreanaz as Angel (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel)
Hand me that bramble branch, will you? Where are my glasses? Let me see … one, two, three …
Yule, the winter solstice, is upon us once again. This year, here in the deeps of darkness, I’m thinking about The Fool’s journey.
The Fool, by Emily Balivet
The Fool is an archetype, a recurrent symbol in mythology, folklore and story. Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk is a Fool. The Fool shows up as a simpleton, an innocent, one who is ignorant, inexperienced and silly. Archetypes have two sides, shadow and light. In modern culture The Fool has been reduced to its shadow, its most negative attributes, an insult, a curse and a contemptuous label.
But the old tales hint at a deeper, older meaning of the archetype. In fairy tales, The Fool is often the youngest sibling, the least able and powerful character, who nevertheless becomes the only one to successfully complete the task or quest. Often, The Fool has a good heart, or some extraordinary purity of character that allows him/her to be successful. The Fool has faith in magic, in talking birds and beasts, in the advice of old women, in objects given by peddlers at crossroads. To be a fool is to be held in a circle containing everything and nothing, to be without judgement, rules, expectations, cynicism or fear. The Fool is an archetype of youthful energy, bright, glowing and optimistic, filled with hopes and dreams.
Characters of this archetype set out, sometimes exiled or driven from their home, sometimes volunteering to go, with nothing but their shining confidence, intuition and willingness to do a task or find a solution. They rarely have external resource, but carry a great wealth of internal assets, including, interestingly, a kind of innocent cleverness that arises from authenticity and the simplicity of great integrity. The Fool has everything she or he needs in the form of untapped, chaotic potential.
It seems to me we’ve lost sight of the sacred role of The Fool. We kill foolish behavior with punishment, restriction, control, mocking and tribal shaming. We teach our children to avoid playing The Fool by making “good” choices. We avoid looking or feeling like fools. Foolishness is equated with immaturity, irresponsibility and naiveté. We resist being wrong or admitting we made a mistake. Playfulness is no longer a priority.
I see The Fool as an essential first step in The Hero’s journey. It’s where we all start as we undertake any new experience or endeavor. All Heroes start out as Fools, and perhaps all Fools are also Heroes. The Fool archetype creates space in which we learn resilience, strength, courage and creative problem solving. In the gap between The Fool’s happy hopes and dreams and reality is the place where Self is shaped, and the more fully we embrace this archetype, the more of our own potential we realize.
Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash
That’s what I believe, when I think carefully about it, but that’s not how I show up in the world.
I hate to feel like a fool. Humiliation is one of the most uncomfortable emotions I experience. I dread appearing irresponsible or naïve. I’ve bought into the cultural definition of foolishness equaling stupidity, and I don’t want to be perceived as stupid. I’ve been warned at the beginning of every Fool’s journey I’ve embarked upon with head shaking, patronizing smiles and dire, ominous warnings: “You have no idea how hard marriage is.” “Boy, is your life going to change!” “You’re going to hate it!” “You’ll find out I was right!” “It won’t last.” “Nothing will ever be the same.”
As a parent, I shook my own head, smiled patronizingly and issued warnings. I wanted to protect my sons from “bad” choices, from danger, from illness and injury and from the pain of disillusionment and disappointment, the very things that help us figure out who we are.
The Fool is an archetype precisely because it’s so persistent and present in our lives. It’s our nature to go into the world and explore, seek, complete tasks and engage in quests. I wonder what it would be like if we all framed The Fool’s journey as sacred space, as a necessary and beautiful rite of passage, filled with potential and promise. In that case, revisiting this archetype throughout our lives at any age could be viewed as a chance to refresh our willingness, consent and curiosity about ourselves and what might be possible, a chance to apply the skills we’ve learned in our previous cycles as The Fool rather than stay frozen in bitterness, shame, regret and fear.
It’s true that every new journey is a risk. None of us could have imagined what it would be like to be an adult, to fall in love, to get married, to have children, to move across the country, to get the perfect job, to battle illness or injury, to age. Dire warnings and ominous predictions are pointless and useless as we navigate in our lives. Sincere and simple congratulations from others; faith in our own intuition, intelligence and strength and the experience of unconditional love and belief in our abilities from friends and family is what we need as we push forward in search of new horizons.
Yule signals the return of the light and new beginnings. We all embark on a new cycle, and none of us knows what it will bring. The Fool is tying together a bundle of food and setting out, following a new road into an unknown place, exploring, perhaps searching for something. Interested, curious, fearless and confident, The Fool walks into the future as the light strengthens once more.
In old stories, a crossroad is always a magical place of power and choice. You never know who you might meet at a crossroad. Perhaps a lean, handsome peddler will draw up a cart and spread his wares. Other travelers may appear. Elders may linger there with wisdom under their tongues. Crossroads are not always identified by neat, straightforward lettered signs, but portents, omens and intuitive signs abound. A dismally croaking raven, a snake in the dust or a fleeting glimpse of a fox all have a message at a crossroad.
I rarely miss posting weekly, but last week I did. I succumbed to a virulent upper respiratory virus and for a few days had no choice but to down tools and lie low. Simply breathing occupied all my attention and energy. I cancelled plans and obligations, abandoned my ‘to accomplish’ list and let go of my self-expectations.
This was frustrating, as it was the week in which I intended to transition effortlessly from my old job to new possibilities, witness the smooth closing of the sale of my property in Colorado, and generally navigate these significant endings and beginnings seamlessly, elegantly, confidently and without mess.
Instead, I emptied two boxes of Kleenex, coughed as though ready for an end-stage TB ward, achieved a spectacularly sore and chapped mouth and nose, drank liters of fluid with the inevitable day and night result of continually needing to pee, and tried to sleep in a sitting position to facilitate breathing through my clogged airway.
Instead of transitioning smoothly into new work, I canceled one opportunity and didn’t follow up on others. I worried about money instead.
The sale of my house did occur, but a day late due to unexpected last minute paperwork that needed to be signed and notarized and sent from Maine back to Colorado. My renters have been unable to find a new place, the buyer (now owner) is moving into a trailer because her old house also sold and her new house still has renters in it, and I need urgently to return to Colorado and retrieve the rest of my possessions from the property.
In short, nothing about my internal, physical or external reality has been seamless, elegant, confident or without mess. In fact, there’s been quite a bit of mess, from sodden Kleenex to tangled feelings.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash
None of this really surprised me. I’ve never yet been really miserably ill without a significant emotional event of some kind at the onset. I might not admit my distress intellectually, but the truth will out physically. Unacknowledged feelings eventually reach such proportions they demand my attention, one way or the other. All of my pretty plans didn’t allow for any space in which to pause, reflect, feel and be with how things are.
So, I got sick.
I resigned myself to the inevitable, did what I could for my symptoms, reread all my old Mary Stewart books (so comforting, and no brain required), dozed, and thought about intersections, endings and beginnings, suspended activity and crossroads.
I have a tendency to view my experience through a lens of metaphor and symbol, and suspended activity has been much in my mind for the last five years. The Hanged Man is a Tarot card with just that meaning, and my first book is named after it.
The Hanged Man is a card many people fear, although generally the figure depicted hangs upside down from one leg, apparently perfectly relaxed and comfortable and even smiling, depending on the deck. The card illustrates that place in life we’re all familiar with between one thing and another, just like the crossroad. Events converge and intersect. Meetings and partings take place. We suddenly come to the end of a road and it’s necessary to choose a new one.
I’ve never been good at pausing. I can accept change, but I expect myself to adjust and adapt instantly and effortlessly, no pause required. I don’t want to hang around (if you’ll pardon the pun) and think about what’s over or what I’d like to begin. I want to get a grip and move on. Now!
This is a shame, and all the old stories and archetypes tell us it’s counterproductive. Crossroads are sacred ground, filled with resting places, old altars and tilted gravestones. The leaves on trees growing at crossroads whisper all the prayers and petitions they’ve heard. At crossroads we lay out cards, cast runes and yarrow stalks, interpret dreams, drum, dance and call on our intuition and faith for guidance. A crossroad is a place to linger, honoring where we’ve been and considering a way forward, or sideways, or perhaps even retracing our steps for a second time before we go on.
Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash
A crossroad deserves an offering of our presence and patience. It’s only in suspended activity that we access our deepest intuition and wisdom, only then when we begin to gain full understanding. Loss takes time to put to rest. Hopes and dreams need time to grow. Intuition can’t speak unless we’re quiet, and guidance can’t find us if we’re not still.
I’m writing this out on our deck in the sun. I can hear water running into the pond. The phoebe, back for another summer, is perched in her favorite spot on the barn roof, bobbing her tail and hunting for insects. Wonder of wonders, there’s not a box of Kleenex at my elbow! Not only that, but I’m breathing through my nose. Things are looking up.
Before me is a new week. I’ve sort of given up on the seamless and elegant thing. It hasn’t been fun to be sick, but I’m grateful I was forced to pause. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything except wasting time and blowing my nose, but I see now I needed to hang by one leg and just be for a little while. I needed to consider what’s ending, and how I feel about it, and what direction I want to go now. I needed to spend some time wandering in my graveyard, remembering what’s laid to rest there. It was important to revisit my hopes and dreams, check in with my intuition and take time to wonder what will happen next.
At this point I’ve decided to be content with lingering at this crossroad. When it’s time to go on from here, I’ll know. In the meantime, this is a good place. Maybe a peddler is even now on his way to meet me, or an old crone in a hooded cloak will come in the dark morning hours with an enigmatic message showing me the way forward. Who knows?
Now that this is written, perhaps I’ll go find the tree from which the Hanged Man is suspended and see what’s on his mind today.