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.
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.