Terms and tables

There are two tables in the room where I do my writing. One is my “standing desk,” i.e. a cheap piece from a certain Swedish superstore with two filing boxes stacked on top (it’s hella classy and ergonomic). The other table is an altar.

I struggled with this description for a long time – I called it my meditation spot, my reflection table, my thing-over-there. Lots of people practice meditation or contemplation, people from all sorts of cultural traditions, so that word felt less loaded with religious assumptions. But the second table in my room is not solely a meditation spot. It has tarot cards on it, along with rocks and seeds and bits of bone and other items one might most accurately call icons. So, if I’m being honest, it’s an altar.

The problem with the word is that it implies some kind of belief, and my beliefs are slippery. I’m not a monotheist; I’m not a polytheist. I might be a pantheist, for certain definitions of “pan” and “theist,” which is to say eight out of ten people who give a shit would think I’m not a pantheist. Those people would probably call me an atheist, except I disagree with practically all the cultural meaning that word has been given by strident jerks on the internet. Not to mention my use of tarot cards and scraps and icons, which most atheists would give a vigorous side-eye.

“Altar” isn’t the only imprecise term I’ve dug up over my past couple years of metaphysical spelunking. There’s “pagan,” and “witchy,” and “woo,” all of which bear relevance to the stuff I actually do at my thing-over-there table. But the words don’t fit exactly the way I want them to. Like an itchy sweater with too much fabric around the armpits.

It makes me wish for a philosophical and spiritual equivalent to the term “queer,” which I happily affix to myself exactly because of its slipperiness – flexibility is the point of the word. If somebody wants me to nail things down, I can use other terms, but only with a cumbersome amount of clarification (“bisexual” where “bi” means “genders both like and unlike one’s own;” “pansexual” with explanations of “yes, that’s a thing” and/or “no, poly is different”).

Were somebody to ask me what my spiritual beliefs are, specifically, I can’t begin to imagine how I’d explain it concisely. Or even in a way that made much sense.

Maybe that will change with experience and with better vocabulary. In the meantime, I sit at my little table – at my altar – and throw cards and meditate and light incense. Because these are actions that help me think differently about my life and about the world, actions that have meaning for me. And because my altar makes my beliefs more nuanced, rather than just more easily described.


3 of Swords: power, pain, and purpose

I’m up on the Little Red Tarot blog this week, talking about the stabby three of swords and its (sort of) positive side.

…when we numb ourselves to our own despair for the world, we cut ourselves off from our creativity as well. We bypass the emotional experiences that can unite us with like-minded others, and we stunt our ability to imagine new ways of combating what threatens to destroy us. Slowly, persistently, the three of swords is showing me how to do the work.

Find the full post here.

Ritual and rationality

There are some recurring themes in my life that are basically a mystery to me, but I know exactly where my love of ritual came from. I grew up Catholic in the South, a convergence of cultures that left me hard-wired with mystical leanings, like a genetic muscle memory.

There aren’t a whole lot of Catholics in Tennessee; when it comes to religion (and in the South things often come to religion), Protestants tend to view us as eccentric papist cousins at best and actual heathens at worst. I decided early on not to be ashamed about it. When your world history teacher calls you out during class to explain the theological principle of transubstantiation, you kind of just have to own that shit. Even if then everyone calls you a cannibal.

The religious rituals of my childhood were both comforting and arcane – utterly familiar, and yet always exotic to the rest of my life. I loved them. When I think of Mass, I still think of the smell: incense, beeswax, dark wood, and centuries.

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Ritual, that inner-sanctum sensory space, has been missing from essentially all my adulthood. It hasn’t just been missing – I have missed it. For a while I couldn’t really come to terms with the feeling. I’d spent most of a decade slowly talking myself out of Catholicism, out of religion in general. Hadn’t I given up my membership like cutting up a bad credit card? Was I not staunchly rational now?

And yet, ritual creeps back in. A smoky scent I can’t quite wash from my skin.

Here’s how I’ve come to view my rituals, things I do like tarot and meditation and even lighting candles (Catholics simply can’t do without candle offerings). I no longer think these acts are irrational. I think my ritual acts are non-rational, and that they serve a rational purpose.

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