Tarot cards appeared in the fourteenth century, when they were used primarily for play. Sometime in the eighteenth century, the cards began to be used for cartomancy. Tarot cards are archetypal (they illustrate recurrent symbols), and countless modern decks are available, some of which are beautiful works of art.
When I work with the Tarot, I use a common classic 10-card spread called the Celtic cross. One of the richest and most enigmatic parts of the Celtic cross spread are the seventh and eighth cards, representing the querent as he/she sees him/herself and the querent as others see him/her.
I’ve learned, after decades of working with the cards, to pay close attention to what lands in those two places. If the cards have similarities, I know I’m living with reasonable authenticity. I’m staying grounded in who I am, and I’m showing up in the world and in my relationships honestly. I have a sense of being at home, of belonging in my own life. My connections feel solid and healthy.
If the cards are wildly opposing, however, I think carefully about what’s going on. In emotional intelligence coaching, this gap is key. Whatever is hidden between our own authentic experience and how others see us can be excavated, examined, healed, released, and/or renewed. The most effective coaches coach to the gaps.
In psychology, this idea is expressed with the Johari window, a model used to illustrate the relationship between ourselves and others.
What’s in that square of the Johari window that nobody knows, not us, and not others? What lies in the cleft between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us? What possibility or potential sleeps or hibernates there, waiting to wake up or be discovered? What insight and information are we missing as we look at others and ourselves?
Here are some possibilities:
We have crafted a highly-polished and highly-defended pseudo self and our authenticity is buried underneath it.
We are keeping too many secrets out of shame or fear; our authenticity is blocked. We are trying to stay safe.
We are low in our ability to emotionally express ourselves.
We have no idea who we really are; we accept the expectations of others about what we should or must be and try to fit those definitions.
Our closest connections are not healthy; those around us are employing abusive tactics like gaslighting, projection, smear campaigns and chronic blaming. We know who we are, but we’re overwhelmed by what they say about who we are. We’re in the wrong place, connected to the wrong people.
We ourselves are a Cluster B disordered person; we are unable to have insight into why we do what we do or the ways our behavior and choices affect those around us. We think of ourselves as victims and blame others.
We are too fearful to explore ourselves or others or ask or answer questions.
It doesn’t matter if we approach these kinds of questions via a mystical route or a more science-based path, to be human is to ponder about who we are and what we are for; to strive to make meaning out of our lives and experience.
We believe we know what we know, and we spend a lot of time defending that knowledge. We’re much less comfortable with what we don’t know, and some people refuse to explore that terrain at all.
For me, however, that uncharted territory, both within and without, is where all the good stuff is. The cracks and crevices, the blind and blank spots, are filled with the possibility and potential of insight and clarity. Healing is there, though it may come about through cautery or amputation. Growth is there, though it might mean our bones ache and we must alter our lives to accommodate that growth.
As humans, we are social, and we need others in order to survive and thrive. When I consider the rift between how I see myself and how others see me, I remember the power we each have in the lives around us, and the power those around us have on us. We can’t change other people, or save them (especially from themselves), but we can and do have influence on others. When we believe in the good things in others, we are making a difference. When we choose to manipulate or tear down others, we are making another kind of difference. This is the line between friends and frenemies.
It makes me squirm to understand the people around me know things about me I’m blind to, and see me in ways I can never access. I feel exposed and vulnerable. Yet the same is true for everyone. If my friends feel the same kind of affection and willingness to allow me to be who I am that I feel for them, I’m both humbled and grateful, but I’m still squirming — just a little!
I learned long ago the people I want to be closely connected to are willing to live with some degree of authenticity. My best friends have been those who told me the truth; the ones who let me know when I’m off the rails, or otherwise acting like an idiot. If we can’t tolerate feedback from others, we lose a quarter of the Johari window; a quarter of our available experience, potential, strength and growth.
Likewise, if we are unable or unwilling to give honest feedback to others, they lose a quarter of their Johari Window.
It’s only in the tension of connection we become greater than the sum of our parts, greater than we could ever be on our own. The powerful friction and shaping that occurs in relationships forces us to explore, discover, question, learn, unlearn, adapt and adjust more than we would ever do in isolation.
Once I lived with an avid outdoorsman who fished and hunted. He frequently spent his weekends camping during spring, summer and fall. I knew how much pleasure he took in this time away from the rest of his life, and always saw him off with some variation of “Have a great time.”
It never failed to make him mad.
He said it “put pressure” on him when people wished him well.
I felt both dumbfounded and amused by his attitude. I couldn’t imagine feeling insulted because someone who loves you wishes you a great time.
I’ve been remembering that man this week because I’ve been thinking about giving and receiving blessings.
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Traditionally a blessing was an important social exchange. If one was lucky enough to meet an incognito god or goddess on the flanks of Mount Olympus or in some other lonely place and received their blessing, they were broken open to receive it fully, their deepest and most private hopes, fears and pain exposed. It took courage, strength and humility to receive such a gift.
The poet David Whyte suggests we must make ourselves large for the exchange of blessings. To give such a favor is an act of generosity. To receive it is an act of growth. In the last several days I’ve thought a lot about making oneself big enough for blessings. I’ve remembered specific words and ways in which I’ve blessed others, including the simple blessing of my love.
Sometimes I’ve felt the love I gave another in words and actions was recognized, appreciated and fully received. Other times I have not, and I’ve always made that about me. My love was unwelcome and had no value. Now I wonder, though. Perhaps it wasn’t me at all. Perhaps they were not big enough in that moment to accept my blessing.
That thought leads me inexorably to wondering how many times I have not been big enough to receive a blessing from someone else. I’m forced to admit there have been plenty of times; probably many more than I’m aware of.
Am I big enough to be loved hugely, or receive a large sum of money or have my creative hopes realized?
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I’m not sure I am. I’m big enough to be loved moderately, but hugely? No, that feels like too much. I can feel myself tensing, rounding, drawing my knees up and wrapping my arms around my body as I imagine someone trying to give me huge love. I’m not worth that. I’ll be sure to disappoint. They’ve mistaken me for someone else.
I’m too small for such abundance. I choose to be too small. I’m afraid to stand up straight, open my arms and heart wide, and accept huge love. I choose to limit what comes in. I’m afraid of the pain of being broken open. I can make myself bigger in spite of my fear, but I usually don’t in order to accommodate a blessing.
Therefore, I impoverish myself. I have people around me who love me. Perhaps they love me as deeply as I love, and they long for me to receive it as I long for my love to be received, but my own inability to be large enough to allow their blessing into my life makes the energy of their love impotent and weakens our connection. My fear and choice to be small, hard and rigid, like a rolled-up porcupine, not only limit me; they limit others as well.
My most frequent prayer on behalf of others is that they might experience the greatest good. I use that specific language because I know I don’t know what the greatest good is for any of us. Sometimes what we want the most in life is not in our best interests. Sometimes the hardest experiences are the most useful to us. Sometimes what we long for is what we most need. I don’t know. I’m not big enough to know. I can’t see far enough down the road to judge the value in any experience. All I can say, along with everyone else, is what feels pleasant and what feels uncomfortable to me in the moment.
Oxford online dictionary defines blessing as “a beneficial thing for which one is grateful; something that brings well-being; a person’s sanction or support.” We all can make a list of crises in our lives that later turned out to be blessings in disguise. Maybe it’s all a blessing – each breath, each heartbeat, each tear, each drop of blood and sweat, each moment, each life and death. Gratitude is a practice encompassing all our experience.
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To receive a blessing is to allow an expression of support, affection and maybe even love touch us. It’s an act of trust in the intention of the one who blesses us, as well as faith in our own worth. We need one another in this life, and healthy reciprocity makes connections stronger. It’s not enough to be the strong one who maintains safety by extending love and support while accepting none; we must also be willing to be down and out, to be lost and confused, and to receive help and encouragement in our turn.
Last weekend two friends and my partner helped me empty out my flooded storage unit, chip ice, sweep water, put down pallets (transported in my friends’ truck), and put everything back again. We were ankle-deep in mud, slipped and slid on ice and splashed around in water as we worked. It needed to be done and I wanted to do it. I know I needed help. Yet from the beginning I was blocking the support and caring around me. I fussed about my friends using their Saturday to undertake such a messy job. I felt bad about using their truck. I was worried somebody would hurt their back heaving my wet mattress and box springs around. At the same time, I was deeply touched and uncomfortable because I could feel their caring and concern and I didn’t know how to take it gracefully. I wanted to be big enough to accept friendship and love from these dear ones, but it was really hard. I know, however, I’m not good at receiving and I want to be better. I also know, had our positions been reversed, I would have greatly enjoyed helping out a friend on a windy spring Saturday morning.
I endured my discomfort. Now that it’s done, what I will remember is not what was damaged and lost, or even the mess. What I’ll remember is the four of us tackled a necessary job, worked together and had a good time doing it.
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It was a blessing. I stretched as wide as I could to receive it.
I need more practice.
When I tell someone I love them, or wish them a great day, or the greatest good, I mean it. It’s not just words. My heart is in it. When I light a candle and reach out with all I am to a loved one who is far away, I’m offering the best I am as a blessing, a candle in dark times, a comfort in distress. I want the gift of my love and support to be received and used.
Probably the best place to start is to learn to receive with more grace myself, to expand, and to humbly accept whatever blessings come my way, whether plainly visible or in disguise.
Have a great day, readers. Greatest good to you. Blessings.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how much living a life resembles writing a story.
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We love our stories, whether they be in the form of songs, film, books (digital or tangible) or spoken language. We love the nonfiction of history and science, memoirs, and fiction. Story has anchored me to life since before I learned to read.
During my writing hours I’m engrossed in creating characters and weaving them together. One scene gives rise to another. There must be action and movement. There must be some kind of story logic. Every word must help drive the story forward. Characters need to be believable and recognizable in their behavior and growth. As an audience, we want to see characters change and learn. We want to commiserate with and applaud our favorite characters. We want them to do well.
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As a writer, I don’t have total control or knowledge of my story. I create a rough outline, create characters, choose a setting, and start writing. If I’ve done well with my characters, the act of writing animates them into becoming collaborators rather than pawns. I’ve learned the characters who remain passive and one-dimensional are weak and need to be reworked. I may have a direction I want my characters to go in, but strong ones frequently refuse to comply with my outline and notes and we wind up sitting glaring at one another with our arms folded, my character looking out from the laptop screen at me at the keyboard. The flow of the writing stops then, until I set aside my rigidity and work with other possibilities.
This is exactly like life. How often have we gone down a blind alley and wound up with our noses against a brick wall but been too stubborn or exhausted or despairing to retrace our steps and choose another direction? How often have we taken a well-worn path of anxiety and wound up in a trackless desert or marsh, floundering, miserable and lost?
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As we journey through the story of our own lives, however, our view is from the bottom of the valley rather than from a high mountain from which we can see the whole thing. We live our stories one moment at a time, losing sight of the beginning and never knowing the end until we reach it. Our lives are filled with things like visits to the bathroom, brushing our teeth, lost car keys, bills, errands, flat tires and dead car batteries, and colds.
But these details, so ubiquitous in what we call “real life” add nothing to a great film or book. They’re not sexy and entertaining. Nobody wants to watch Wonder Woman floss her teeth or cut her toenails. We don’t see our favorite heroes spending hours hunched over their phones, tablets and games.
We can’t tell the sweeping story of our lives while we’re living them. We know when things feel good or bad, but we don’t look beyond that most of the time. We’re more concerned with our discomfort and disappointment than we are with the inherent ebb and flow of life.
We don’t think about what our story requires. We don’t see our most difficult times as turning points essential to our story.
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As a writer, however, I know tension, conflict and obstacles are necessary. They create movement and growth. They create change. They force characters to reveal weaknesses and summon strengths. They teach resilience and test faith.
What would it be like if we could watch our own lives as though watching the next big superhero movie? What if we could revel in the setting we find ourselves in, even if we decide to escape it and find a new one? What if we chose to feel inspired by the unpredictability of our unfolding lives and heartened by the way obstacles shape us?
What if every experience was an essential, beautiful part of our story?
Clarissa Pinkola Estes introduced me, years ago, to the idea of descansos in Women Who Run With the Wolves, one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Descansos is a Spanish word meaning resting places. A descanso might be a grave in an ordinary graveyard, but Estes suggests creating descansos as a spiritual practice; a method for letting go and/or acknowledging a loss; a place to put rage, fear and other feelings or destructive thoughts to rest so we don’t walk forward burdened by unresolved pain and experience.
We know grief has its own timetable. The Celts set aside a year and a day for the proper discharge of grief. Many other cultures have formal mourning periods and practices, during which people are not expected to fully participate in social responsibilities and activities. Many of us try to move away from the anguish of grief as quickly as possible, but there is no shortcut for the grieving process. Sooner or later, we must feel it and walk through it if we are to heal.
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Loss is not just about the death of a loved one. As we journey through life we encounter many losses, including the loss of our innocence, which might take many forms; the loss of dreams; the loss of health; the loss of a job, a home, a relationship or some piece of identity. For all of these, we might make a descanso, a place where we have knelt and prayed, wept, planted flowers or a tree and marked with a cairn, a stone, a cross, or some other symbol that has meaning for us. A descanso is a quiet, private place apart from the rest of our lives, a place we can visit when autumn leaves begin to fall and the cooling air crisps with the scent of windfall apples, damp leaves and browning ferns. We pay homage to what has been, to that which we’ve blessed, released and laid to rest. We invite memory and take time to empty our cup of rage, pain or tears again.
I recently wrote about identity. This fall, it occurs to me to spread out all the pieces of my identity, past and present, try them on, one at a time, and notice how they feel. I will make descansos for those aspects of identity that no longer fit me or serve my intention going forward. I want an identity update; to replace the old versions with an identity compatible with my present life and experience, much like going through a clothes closet and culling.
In fact, that is a task I’m undertaking right now as well; going through my clothes. Perhaps that’s why I feel nostalgic and am thinking about descansos. Autumn awakens in me the desire to clean out and lighten up, literally and metaphorically. I discover my difficulty in letting go of clothing I haven’t worn in years and which no longer fits is about the memories of who I was and what I was doing while wearing it rather than the clothing itself.
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Memories can be a heavy burden. Some are precious and we never want to lose them. Other memories haunt us and keep our wounds fresh and bleeding. The remedy for all those imprisoning beliefs, pieces of negative identity, unresolved feelings and painful memories is the practice of descansos, which is to say the practice of grieving and then moving on. That order is essential. We must grieve fully and willingly, and then move on. A graveyard is not a place to pitch a tent and live the rest of our lives. It’s a place to create, visit, honor, care for and meet ourselves when old parts and pieces of our lives enter our dreams and tug at our hearts.
Making descansos is a gentle practice. It is not denial, avoidance or rejection, but rather an open-armed welcome to all our experience, followed by honest assessment and choice-making. Like clothing, identity and memories wear out, no longer fit or become too uncomfortable and outdated to be useful. Making a resting place is an intentional practice, without violence, frenzy or horror. We are not tearing ourselves apart with self-hatred, but allowing change and growth, the same way the trees are beginning to let go of their leaves and a snake sheds its skin. The practice of descansos allows us to clean up, clean out, and create space for new growth and experience. It’s an opportunity to create a place of sacred memory so we do not have to stagger under a jumbled-up load of the past.
Creating descansos is uniquely individual. Some might draw a map of their life’s journey, marking descansos along the way. Artists might paint, make music, write, create, sculpt or dance. Others might seek out a sacred place in nature for ritual, prayer and making a grave or graves.
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When I make descansos, I think of putting a baby to bed in a dim nursery, bathed and fed, sleepy and smelling of milk, with a clean blanket and a stuffed toy. Perhaps our most brutal memories and experiences are the ones needing the tenderest descansos we can create. As we would nurture, reassure and protect an infant, we nurture, reassure and protect ourselves with the practice of descansos. We allow ourselves to suffer, release our suffering and move on, honoring the way our experience shapes and enriches us.
It’s autumn in central Maine, a good time to make new descansos and visit old ones. A good time to remember. A good time to walk under the trees and absorb the wisdom of cycles and seasons, growth and change, life and death.
Character: The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual; a person in a novel, play or movie.
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I’m fascinated with the places between. All the places between. Threshold places. Edge-of-chaos places. Here-there-be-dragons places off the edges of maps. It’s in the gaps, fissures, cracks and edges that I mine for the characters that inhabit my writing. It’s in the between places my own character is shaped, and I gain the clearest understanding of the characters around me.
I’ve written about labels before. Discovering characters is not about labels. Labels aren’t people. We’ve had a lot of reminders recently that talent, success, money and power fail to fully define character. Ours is a culture of texts and tweets, acronyms and jargon like “neoliberal” and “postmodernism.” We’ve become skilled at reducing ourselves and others to one-dimensional paper dolls with the application of a label. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of culture. We’ve no time or interest to invest in understanding complexity.
But what lies between the enormously talented actor and his serial sexually abusive behavior? What is the untold story of the “perfect” mother who drives into a lake with her kids in an act of murder and self-destruction? How do we think about the extraordinarily gifted writer who is also homophobic, or a child abuser? Who are we in the gap between what we believe ourselves to be, what we define ourselves to be, what we want ourselves to be, what we’re afraid we are, and how we actually show up in the world in the experience of others?
In that space between lies real character. That’s where I’m at work, listening, taking notes, asking questions and observing. As a writer, I must know my characters. What are they afraid of? What’s their worst memory? What’s their ideal vacation? What motivates them? What does their sock drawer look like? What’s in their car? What’s on their desk? How do they treat a service person? How many unopened emails squat in their inbox? Where do they want to be in five years? In ten years?
Defining ourselves or others by a single characteristic, choice or ideology doesn’t build connection, understanding or empathy. We can spend hours online, commenting, facebooking, blogging and interacting with others about every issue from sexual politics to diet, but none of it defines our character as honestly as how we treat a real live co-worker who identifies as transgender, or what kind of food we actually have in our refrigerator.
Those tantalizing, fertile, often concealed places between! Interestingly, words obscure the places between. Words are capable of seductive lies, but action, especially action taken in the stress of an unexpected moment, points unfailingly to true character.
Another problem with labels is their inflexibility. We each perform hundreds and hundreds of actions a day, and some are notable for how well they don’t work out. Labels imply we don’t change, we don’t grow, we don’t adapt and adjust and learn, when in fact the opposite is true.
The Johari Window is a concept created by a couple of psychologists in the 1950s to help people understand their relationships with themselves and others. The window suggests that we cannot see ourselves or others entirely; there is always a space of possibility to discover. Fully defining character becomes a community project. Even so, the unknown or hidden parts of character can and do appear suddenly and overwhelmingly, often resulting in some kind of heinous act and leaving us struggling with what we missed, what we didn’t know or what we didn’t want to admit.
It’s so fatally easy to misunderstand and underestimate others, especially when we can’t observe, talk and interact face-to-face with someone and compare their actions with their words over the long term. Complexity takes time. Making judgements based on labels does not.
As a writer, I’ve learned to look at myself and others with a more interested and less judgmental eye. I’ve learned to set up camp in the places between, look and listen carefully, observe keenly and ask a lot of questions. I’ve concluded that people who toss labels around are often in too much of a hurry to achieve power over others and silence challenge or dissent to engage in thoughtful dialog or discussion. Label users reveal far more about themselves than whoever they’re labeling. It’s a diversionary tactic.
Who is that character hiding behind all the labels they’re slinging left, right and center? What’s really going on with them? What kind of fear, uncertainty, insecurity, pain or lust for power motivates them? Who taught them to use labels so carelessly and unhelpfully? What needs are they trying to meet?
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An engaging character is one who defies labels, one who challenges preconceptions, one we empathize with and even care about in spite of the abhorrent choices they make. A well-written character is complex and dynamic.
This week is one of those between places. We’re swinging between Christmas and the New Year, between 2017 and 2018. The holiday season has stirred up our memories, our family situations, our grief, gratitude, and financial fears. We’ve traveled, abandoned our usual diet and routines, gotten worn out and indulged in sugar and alcohol. The flu is abroad. The package was stolen off the porch. The dog bit Santa when he came down the chimney.
Here, my friends, is the between place of authentic character. Not who we wish to be. Not who we say we are. Not who we present ourselves as on Facebook or pretend to be for our families and coworkers or resolve to become in the New Year, but who we are today, with our blind spots, our secrets, our fears, our greasy oven, our favorite coffee cup, indigestion, bills to pay, snow to shovel, our comfy sagging chair and what we choose to do with this in-between time.
Powerful characters. May we create them. May we discover, foster and celebrate them in others. May we honor our own.