Posts Tagged ‘tarot’

As I was looking around one of the local bookstores for books about Wicca, the selections seemed nauseatingly self-promotional: Let me enthrall you with the story of how I abandoned corporate America to become High Priestess of my own coven, moving effortlessly between privileged positions in two very different societies. That is not my kind of story, so I left the store without buying anything. A few days later, I looked up the Wicca books at the library where I work, and there was exactly one. This one.

I am not what you would call witchy. Raised in Manhattan, I confirm plenty of the stereotypes of a New Yorker: an overeducated liberal, a feminist, a skeptic long suspicious of organized religion, surrounded by friends – several of them artists, writers, and filmmakers – who consider agnosticism an uncomfortable level of devotion. I’m not prone to joining groups of any stripe, particularly the spiritual variety. I believe in something transcendent, but I’ve yet to meet someone with a convincing label for it.

At the same time, we each have a dimension hidden beneath our carefully cultivated surface, a piece of ourselves that we can’t shake off or explain away. For me, it’s this: I’ve always been drawn to the outer edges, the fringe – communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream but also bind them closer together. As a writer, I took a stab at a novel about the life of David Koresh, in part because I envied the plain certainty of his followers; I cooked up thin excuses to report on a Billy Graham revival in Queens, visit a New Age commune in California, move into a convent in Houston. On one level, I’ve been driven by an easy curiosity, an attraction to the exotic and far-out – which the whole spectrum of belief has long seemed to me – but I’ve also been looking hard for those intangibles I might have in common with even the most alien congregation. As a natural outgrowth of this impulse, I am setting out to make a documentary about American forms of mysticism. Finally, through the drawn-out, painstaking production of a feature-length film, I’ll come to understand what I’ve been chasing, beat it into a tangible product, a neat conversation piece, and move on.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I opened this book, but I sure as hell wasn’t expecting to find myself. Alex Mar is a very different person from me, with a radically different background, but this approach to belief is very similar to what I’ve been feeling. As I read the book and followed her journey through American Paganism, there’s a formlessness to her spirituality that I relate to very powerfully.

I want to stop sublimating this religious drive and instead embrace it, pitch forward into it, see how it might better serve me. Stop being this spiritual dilettante, a professional “seeker.” If I have a natural talent for belief, I must be a natural fit for something to believe in – some system somebody has laid out somewhere. I imagine a near future in which all my parts might align. For the first time, I find myself surrounded by people who assume just such a thing is possible.

I keep getting Poison’s song stuck in my head, asking the world to “give me something to believe in,” and I’m still working toward that. I’m figuring things out, a little at a time, and there are traditions in this book that seem appealing and others that don’t. Part of this is Mar’s own story, but she also explains the origins of the most common pagan traditions, and these stories all seem to revolve around a single charismatic leader, as I imagine most stories about the origin of belief systems do.

Gerald Gardner is the first of these leaders; he started Wicca in England sometime in the last century. He seems to have traveled around the world and cobbled together a practice, a lot of stuff from the Freemasons and traditional religions from Southeast Asia and Africa, and some of his own inspiration. There’s nudity and sadism and the kind of stuff Christians like to spread rumors about, but for most of the followers it’s about believing in power and accessing it through ritual, and some of those rituals involve sex and violence. His ideas spread around, and eventually led to the type of earth-loving mother-goddess worship we think of today.

Victor Anderson is another important leader, this one from the Pacific Northwest – you know, suicide country. He brought forth the Feri strand of Wicca, something more primal and less old-man-sex-fetish. There is sex involved, but there’s a stronger element of consent, and you can complete that part of the ritual with your regular partner in the privacy of your own home. The name hints of the old-world traditions about Little People, but the connection there is more related to the sense that nature is wise and magical and unforgiving, not so much to tiny people with wings. When I first came out six years ago, a couple of friends (who don’t know each other) suggested I go to a retreat, and I think it was Faerie rather than Feri, but they both presented it as a weeklong gay orgy in the woods. As if I have ever had the money for a weeklong retreat of any type. I’ve often marveled at the fact that people think they know me and yet think I’d be okay with that, as if I would be comfortable having several partners in a single day, as if it doesn’t take me a great deal of contemplation to move from one to the next. Yes, there’s a lot of power in sexual energy, and I do enjoy it rather a lot, but I think I’d be too easily overstimulated. It’s an intense experience, so it takes time for me to assimilate it. I’m just not promiscuous. And while I enjoy going skyclad in the privacy of my own home, I don’t think I’d like it in public. I feel a little outré just taking my shirt off at a public swimming pool.

The chapter about Dianic Wicca, the part that grew out of the feminism of the 1960s, feels less strongly dominated by a single overwhelming personality, and that actually makes a lot of sense. In our culture, we’re taught that women are more communal and less ego-driven than men, so a religion born in our culture that doesn’t focus on men logically should reflect those values. Notable names include Zsuzsanna Budapest, Selena Fox, and Ruth Barrett. As one of them remarked, this movement isn’t anti-men, it’s just not about us. There’s a little blip of a hetero wedding ceremony in this chapter, so men aren’t excluded, and even those few lines had me in tears. If I ever get married again, I want it to be like that.

Will you cause him pain?

I may.

Is that your intention?

It is not.

There are some areas of the faith that make space for men, but there are others that don’t. I agree that it’s important for women to create their own spaces where they can feel comfortable without any men around. I taught a class a few years ago where all the students were female, and it had a dramatically different feeling than my classes usually have. I try to treat my students as equals, because that creates a camaraderie that I respond well to. It sometimes involves swearing in front of the class (informal language creates a sense of intimacy) and giving the “tough love” that tells them that I have confidence they can do more and be better than they are. But with the class of women, there was no question of equality. It was more like having a non-sexual harem – there was an element of submission before authority that I am unused to, and it evoked a much gentler response from me. As the only man and the teacher, they all looked to me to lead the discussion and make pronouncements from on high – there’s nothing natural about this. What I’m saying is, even one man in the room can disrupt the sense of community and produce a strong sense of conformity to gender roles, no matter how gay he is. There’s a freedom that can only be found in single-gender environments.

The last of the big names from the past is Aleister Crowley (of course). I’d heard his name in literary criticism – late Victorian authors were really into the paranormal, and Crowley dated a friend of Aubrey Beardsley and joined the same order as W. B. Yeats. He quickly spun off and started his own thing, though; his order is a very explicit reaction against Christianity, much more directly than the others. It is anti-Christianity, with the parody of the Mass and the liturgy, flipping it into a worship of gods Christians would consider demonic. Crowley was also really involved with the tarot, and it sounds like some elements of his Mass are living representations of the pictures on the card set he designed. This chapter was the most troubling for me – reading it felt a bit like sticking my finger in an electrical outlet, the electric charge and the sense that something is wrong – which either means (a) it’s definitely not for me, and I’ll never join this group, or (b) I’m not ready for it, and now is not the time. The thing that bothers me most is the way that it defines itself in opposition. The description of the Mass felt like enacted hatred. I understand that all of these groups were started in supposedly Christian countries, and so to some extent they’re all at least slightly reacting against Christianity, but Crowley’s crowd were the only ones I thought were nasty about it. When she describes the people she meets there, they do seem like nice people, but that service is clearly meant as a Fuck-You-Jesus in a way the others are not. It’s presented as much more temple-oriented, less natural.

Throughout the book, the most important figure (beside the author) is Morpheus, a priestess from California. She’s in the now, not the historical parts of the book. Over the course of their friendship, Morpheus goes from a more nature-centered approach (she built her own henge) to focusing primarily on one of the ancient Irish Goddesses, the Morrigan. As she’s described here, I do not connect with the Morrigan at all. She’s a warrior queen, and I have no ambitions to be either a warrior or a queen. I’m much more likely to follow a wise woman gathering herbs than a sword-wielding shield-maiden, despite my near-total ignorance of botany. While I don’t identify with Morpheus’s journey, I do think that she gives Mar excellent advice:

I also don’t think everyone’s experience is the same or should be. Just because you may not have had a dramatic moment of being chosen by the Goddess doesn’t mean the Gods don’t want you, if you know what I mean. […] So I think it isn’t always helpful to look for a dramatic “calling” or marking experience . . . If the tradition speaks to you in a meaningful way, that is a good place to start.

Which is important to me, because I don’t have a strong sense of vocation right now. I’m looking for starting points.

Skepticism can be really toxic, because it makes you not trust your own lived experiences, the evidence of your senses, without outside verification.

Which is also important to me, because I’m coming out of a time of skepticism back into belief, and trusting myself is an important part of that.

There’s a footnote that I’d like to comment on:

It’s unclear how a graphic book on the Craft made it into the library of a very Christian town – though I’ve heard similar stories from a few people around the country.

It’s because librarians are magic. Even those operating in the Christian tradition seem to have something witchy about them. There’s something about libraries that seems to promote free thinking and a distance from societal expectations, which creates a space for witchcraft even in the rural South.

I’m here, there’s no holding back.

I don’t feel converted to the types of paganism I saw in this book, except maybe that early bit about the henge. Looking in the spaces between, though, I think there would be room for me in that community, if I chose it. I have a friend who describes herself as a “kitchen witch,” and that phrase makes a lot of sense to me. If there’s magic in the world, isn’t it a more worthwhile practice to pour love into the food you feed your family and friends than to hex the bitch who is trying to steal your man? Obviously, one practitioner can do both, but I disagree with the metaphors people use to justify cruelty. Frankly, it seems like many people get into witchery for the sake of doing spells, accessing power for its own sake rather than for the purpose of doing good. Magic represents a bending of natural laws, and that’s not something I want to do. I want to feel whole, to understand my place in the Web of Wyrd instead of trembling it. The emotional cleansing that is deemed necessary before training really appeals to me – I want to feel connected to the earth and to myself; joining soul to ground by means of the body may be more of a martial-arts thing than a Pagan thing, but they’re not mutually exclusive. I want to spread beauty and make the world a better place; I believe evil has to be healed, not punished or destroyed.

I also believe very strongly that dead people should be left alone. Don’t bother them with your problems; being dead doesn’t make them smarter than you. And if it’s someone you love, then let them go. Don’t bind them to earth with your pain. That’s not a kindness to them. There’s a guy she meets that goes around robbing graves – decapitating the body and turning the heads into oracles – and I know he’s probably not using those skulls for sexual purposes, but it still feels like he’s raping corpses. One more reason to be cremated and use the ashes as fertilizer. After I’m gone, I want my body to rise up as a tree.

I think this is a great book as an introduction to Paganism in contemporary America. Many of the experienced practitioners, on the other hand, were rather angry about it. They felt it was exploitative, like she was an identity tourist who betrayed them by only pretending to be sincere. I didn’t get that feeling, though. She threw herself into the Craft as much as she could, and I don’t blame her for not finding an identity there. Five years is a good length of time; if she didn’t find her niche, maybe she doesn’t have one in that community. Some others complained that the historical sections weren’t academic enough, but I don’t think that was really her goal. This is a deeply personal book, so she tells the history the way she understands it. I have the same response to those people who didn’t like the way they were portrayed in the book – other people don’t see us as we see ourselves, they see us through the lens of their own experiences and emotions. So when someone tells a story about me, I don’t always recognize myself in the depiction (Early on, The Ex used to say, But it makes a better story this way). If you didn’t write the book, if it’s not your journey, then of course you look like just a flat character in someone else’s story. That person only saw a small part of you, so they can’t write you the way you really are, in your fullness. For that, you’d need to write your own story. Think back to what she learned about faith: you have to be true to your own experience, and I think Alex Mar was that. The problem people have with her book is that her experience doesn’t match theirs, and I think it’s unfortunate that they would expect it to. How can we see things the same way when the lenses of our experience are different?

In the end, she’s still an outsider. She hasn’t found a shape for her belief yet, which is something else that makes me feel close to her. I think I’m not the only one that this formlessness would appeal to; when you’re on the outside of a tradition, it can be hard to read a book about it by someone who’s on the inside. Authors writing about their own religious beliefs are usually writing for their own community; there’s something incommunicable and unapproachable about spiritual experiences that we as readers have not experienced, kind of like how hard it is to carry on a conversation about Saudi Arabia with someone who’s never left the South. How can I describe air that is so dry it has no life in it, when you live so much with humidity that you don’t notice how nourishing your breath is? How can I share the feeling that my value in the world was reduced to a single activity, one which I valued less and less?  How can I make you see the discomfort of living in a society that rejects you without repelling you so much you end the discussion? How can I give you a flavor of the foreign that is still real enough to you that you can understand it? So yes, in some ways the book ends up being reductive because it’s intended for a specific audience, one that doesn’t have experience with the rituals and magic of modern American Paganism.

There’s a lot of conflict and competition in the occult subculture. They’re still just people, so they think that what’s right for them is right for everyone. Many of them also make their living through teaching or practicing, so they become defensive and protective of their livelihoods, just like traditional priests and pastors. I’m not jumping straight onto the Wicca bandwagon just yet; I’m trying to be deliberate and understand what I believe before I take any initiations or that sort of thing. This isn’t an energy I want to take lightly.

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I know that normally I skip the introductions, but here’s a good bit from Fromm’s:

I wish to express my gratitude to my wife not only for the many suggestions which have been directly incorporated into these chapters but, far beyond this, for what I owe to her searching and penetrating mind which has so greatly contributed to my own development and hence indirectly to my ideas about religion.

The 1950s were a time when women couldn’t get a lot of recognition, so I’m glad Fromm gives credit where it’s due. It’s unfortunate that when he talks about all of humanity he uses masculine pronouns – it was standard practice back then, but now we recognize that it excludes somewhere around half of the population. I know that there are slightly more women than men, worldwide, but I’m not sure if those figures account for transpeople, and I don’t know whether there is a statistically significant difference in the number of transmen and transwomen. So yeah, the book is all sexist and transphobic, but that’s the time Fromm was writing in.

This book is a continuation of Man for Himself, Fromm’s book on psychoanalysis and ethics that I read back in June. He refers back to Escape from Freedom a lot as well, so it really seems like he’s building each book on the previous writings published in English, so this business of reading his books in order of publication was probably a good idea. This one is also really short, so it could be considered a final section to the previous book on ethics. As ever, he uses a lot of italics, so the italics in the quotations below are all his, not mine.

He issues a caveat close to the beginning, that even though we usually associate the word religion with Christianity in this country, he doesn’t intend that connotation.

For lack of such a word I shall use the term religion in these chapters, but I want to make it clear at the outset that I understand by religion any system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion.

Which means that, for the purposes of today’s discussion, anything can be a religion. Writing about literature, for instance, or the pursuit of romantic love. I’ve been getting agitated with facebook recently, and I think it’s because my friends are getting so insistent on their secular religions. Even my friends who embrace a belief system tend to orient their lives around a secular concept to which they give their devotion. To some it’s patriotism and the flag, which I disagree with completely because I think dividing people into nations is useful in governing them but dangerous in the tendency to nationalism and partisanship. To some it’s guns, and I explicitly unfollow these people. But to others it’s social justice, and while I’m in favor of that, their passion and extreme devotion to the specific aspect of injustice that bothers them is difficult for me. I have people posting that not enough of us are talking about Puerto Rico, but I feel like a third of the things I see are about the disaster there. I see so many terrible things in the news that I’ve become less sensitive to tragedies that I don’t see with my own eyes. There are so many tragedies that I’m exposed to that I seem to have lost the ability to be surprised by them, and without the element of surprise I don’t get shocked, angry, or passionate about things the way my friends do. I feel like I’ve lost some essential human element in my personality – it often feels like a physical pressure bearing down on me, that I don’t care enough about people-first language or injustices that don’t affect me personally. Think about the metaphor for feelings from Brave New World – a pipe with one leak builds up a lot of pressure and shoots that water pretty far, but the more leaks there are the weaker the pressure. My facebook newsfeed is like this leaky pipe, and every fresh injustice pokes a new leak, so that I feel like I don’t have any empathy left over for people outside the gay community. The demand to care about every single person on earth is draining, and it leaves me feeling tribal and misanthropic. It makes me think that the world is an awful place full of horrible people, which includes everyone I know. I don’t actually believe that, and it hurts to have those ideas pushed into my head. I am already in pain; stop poking my bruises with sharp sticks.

In some ways, I was better at loving people en masse back when I was more explicitly religious. I was raised in an authoritarian version of Christianity, and as an adult I tried to embrace a more humanist version, but after reading Fromm I’m not so sure whether I was successful. According to Fromm, the authoritarian/humanist divide cuts across all faiths, and he clearly favors the humanist side. In describing the effect of authoritarian religion, of projecting authority and virtue to a being outside of ourselves:

When man has thus projected his own most valuable powers onto God, what of his relationship to his own powers? They have become separated from him and in this process he has become alienated from himself. Everything he has is now God’s and nothing is left in him. His only access to himself is through God. In worshiping God he tries to get in touch with that part of himself which he has lost through projection. After having given God all he has, he begs God to return to him some of what originally was his own. But having lost his own he is completely at God’s mercy. He necessarily feels like a “sinner” since he has deprived himself of everything that is good, and it is only through God’s mercy or grace that he can regain that which alone makes him human. And in order to persuade God to give him some of his love, he must prove to him how utterly deprived he is of love; in order to persuade God to guide him by his superior wisdom he must prove to him how deprived he is of wisdom when he is left to himself.

I’ve lost God, but I haven’t recovered the parts of myself that I gave up ten years ago. Maybe in some ways I still feel like a sinner, but one that is no longer penitent. If I’m a sinner, then I love the sin in me as well as the virtue. The Ex never could quite understand that there were some things that I believed to be wrong, but that I did anyway because I enjoyed the wrongness of them, and maybe that’s still true of me. These days I damn myself through projection differently, thinking and saying that my kids have the best parts of myself, as if I lost some virtue in giving it to them. But this is illogical, because that’s not how genetics works. When I see my personality traits in my children, but without the anxiety, I get excited and happy, but those traits are still present in me, and I want to be better at recognizing my strengths and not only my limitations.

When he gets into talking about love, I do see my limitations quite clearly.

The command to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is, with only slight variations in its expression, the basic principle common to all humanistic religions. But it would indeed be difficult to understand why the great spiritual teachers of the human race have demanded of man that he should love if love were as easy an accomplishment as most people seem to feel. What is called love? Dependence, submission, and the inability to move away from the familiar “stable,” domination, possessiveness, and the craving for control are felt to be love; sexual greed and the inability to stand solitude are experienced as proof of intense capacity for love. People believe that to love is simple but that to be loved is most difficult. In our marketing orientation people think they are not loved because they are not “attractive” enough, attractiveness being based on anything from looks, dress, intelligence, money, to social position and prestige. They do not know that the real problem is not the difficulty of being loved but the difficulty of loving; that one is loved only if one can love, if one’s capacity to love produces love in another person, that the capacity for love, not for its counterfeit, is a most difficult achievement.

[…]

Psychoanalysis also shows that love by its very nature cannot be restricted to one person. Anyone who loves only one person and does not love “his neighbor” demonstrates that his love for one person is an attachment of submission or of domination but not love. Furthermore, anyone who loves his neighbor but does not love himself shows that the love of his neighbor is not genuine. Love is based on an attitude of affirmation and respect, and if this attitude does not also exist toward oneself, who is after all only another human being and another neighbor, it does not exist at all. The human reality behind the concept of man’s love for God in humanistic religion is man’s ability to love productively, to love without greed, without submission and domination, to love from the fullness of his personality, just as God’s love is a symbol for love out of strength and not out of weakness.

As I think over my relationships, I think that Fromm is more correct than I want him to be. In fact, I feel a bit like he’s pulled my pants down in a public place – not embarrassed exactly, but exposed to the possibility of being perceived as inadequate. I do sometimes wonder if the emotion I excite in people is not love so much as pity, since I do very little to hide my suffering, and I seem prone to suffer at the least inconvenience. And while my relationship with him may have started in a good place, it ended up in possessiveness, dependence, sexual greed (on my part), and the inability to move away from the familiar “stable” (on his part). Then I think about my life here without him, and I’m shy about meeting new people because I’m concerned about not being thin enough, or wealthy enough, or cultured enough, or interesting enough, or handsome enough, and it’s a well-documented fact that our community focuses more on the external than heterosexuals do. A friend told me recently that there’s nothing quite so attractive as a rich, handsome lawyer in his jogging outfit. So maybe what I really want is not love, but just to find someone who will touch me. I’m not saying the two are mutually exclusive, but they do present a very different focus, and probably a different approach (if I knew anything about locating men for either purpose, I could be more specific about this).

I was chatting with a medium I know – practicing my tarot readings, learning more about the symbology – and she introduced me to a divination schema I had never heard of before. The main takeaway point I got was the idea that this instability and restlessness that I’ve been suffering from my whole adult life is not a trial; it’s who I am. The argument is that for me (not for everyone, mind you) it’s my desires for stability and domesticity that are culturally determined and foreign to my nature: the ease with which I get bored isn’t a flaw that I need to correct, it’s just me. Some of us just have explorer personalities, which means that I’ll be better and happier, more my natural self, if I stop thinking of my journey as having a destination and just focus on making sure it doesn’t end. For me, the joy will have to be here and now, in the temporary and elusive, because the permanent will always leave me unsatisfied and the future will never look as I think it will. I was talking it over with another friend, and she pointed out that this doesn’t mean I have to keep up the nomadic lifestyle. It just means that I have to keep looking for something to explore, something new. Life always has something new to offer – new activities, new ideas, new disciplines of study, for example. This self-evaluation meshes well with my Gallup Strengths Finder results and my Myers-Briggs type, which is why I think it’s worth relating. I know that astrology isn’t science and there’s no logical reason to believe in it, but I left that conversation feeling more comforted, more at peace with myself than I have in weeks, and I’m not going to let the logical voice in my head take that away from me.

As with any book about religion, Fromm has a clear goal for us and our belief systems, and I think it’s a good one:

Our unconscious – that is, that part of our self which is excluded from the organized ego which we identify with our self – contains both the lowest and the highest, the worst and the best. We must approach the unconscious not as if it were a God whom we must worship or a dragon we must slay but in humility, with a profound sense of humor, in which we see that other part of ourselves as it is, neither with horror nor with awe. We discover in ourselves desires, fears, ideas, insights which have been excluded from our conscious organization and we have seen in others but not in ourselves. It is true, by necessity we can realize only a limited part of all the potentialities within us. We have to exclude many others, since we could not live our short and limited life without such exclusion. But outside the confines of the particular organization of ego are all human potentialities, in fact, the whole of humanity. When we get in touch with this disassociated part we retain the individuation of our ego structure but we experience this unique and individualized ego as only one of the infinite versions of life, just as a drop from the ocean is different from and yet the same as all other drops which are also only particularized modes of the same ocean.

Or, more concisely:

The psychoanalyst is in a position to study the human reality behind religion as well as behind nonreligious symbol systems. He finds that the question is not whether man returns to religion and believes in God but whether he lives love and thinks truth. If he does so the symbol systems he uses are of secondary importance. If he does not they are of no importance.

One of the reasons that this book is so short is that Fromm circumvents a lot of the religious debates by focusing on the issue of his previous books, authoritarianism. As mentioned, authoritarianism exists in all religions, and he finds it more productive to focus on this difference than the differences between Buddhism and Catholicism, or between Mormons and Muslims. And I think he’s right, that the outward trappings of belief statements and whether you say ‘debts’ or ‘trespasses’ are really unimportant, far less important than whether your faith leads you to love yourself and others or to hate yourself and others. Any faith group where people are increasing in love is okay with me, and any in which people are sowing the seeds of destruction is not. The fact that the same group can have both tendencies just makes it complicated, and reminds me that it’s not my job to judge someone else’s beliefs.

I do want to disagree with Fromm on one point: he argues that secularists don’t have rituals, and I disagree. I may have given up prayer as an individualized ritual of finding comfort through communing with my subconscious, but I’ve switched to tarot readings, which for me have very little sense of mysticism and more to do with the logical application of symbols. There are other rituals I do every day, like flossing, brushing my teeth, and rinsing with mouthwash before going to bed. Or, I fasten my safety belt, put the key in the ignition, press and hold the brake, turn the key, release the parking brake, and then shift into gear before releasing the brake. These may not confirm my position in a group, but they are established patterns of behavior that I hope will bring me safety and good oral health. We all have our rituals, but I guess in 1950 it was a little harder to recognize the secular ones for what they are. Fromm only recognizes ritual in the community sense, as in taking Communion as a congregation.

The shortness of the book does make me wonder how comfortable Fromm was writing on this topic. However, the shortness of it also means that I read it in one day, even though it’s taken me three more to write about it. Life is getting busy. Sometimes a shorter text serves as a good introduction to a writer’s thought, but because this one relies so heavily on the ideas in his other two books, I’d still recommend people start with Escape from Freedom.

Sometimes there are books we meet unexpectedly, which we read though we never planned to or even wanted to. This week I’ve been substituting in a class reading this book, and I’d never even opened it. I’ve heard of it for years, of course, but somehow I never felt any internal motivation to go read it. Even at the height of my interest in Toni Morrison, I didn’t read Cisneros. And Morrison is a good comparison.

Cisneros’s book is a little circular, with short little chapters, many of four paragraphs or less. The first chapter is strongly echoed in the last, too. Characters keep coming back and back. She presents us with a community, and it can be easy to lose the threads since people can disappear for fifty pages in a book that’s only about 110 pages long. Angel Vargas is only briefly mentioned twice, poor boy, with no other connection between those two sections of the book. I read the whole thing in a couple of hours, and I dozed for twenty or thirty minutes in the middle.

Several of the reviewers remarked on the humor of the book, but I must confess I missed that part. There are jokes that bite, and I feel the teeth but miss the laugh. Having grown up poor, I don’t find jokes about poverty funny. Having a conscience, I don’t find jokes about the trials of women in a patriarchal society funny. I found the book to be absolutely fucking depressing. Women are raped, imprisoned, and married as children. The only protection is to hide in childhood for as long as possible, though that’s no guarantee. Rafaela may be compared to Rapunzel, locked in a tower, but no prince is going to rescue her.

The narrator is a girl named Esperanza, which usually translates to Hope, but also contains the ideas of expectation, waiting, and longing. It’s not a happy name, and she thinks it’s too long and full of consonants. She’s trying to navigate the odd world of preteen girls, where she’s perceived as a child right up until the time she puts on high heels, when she is suddenly treated to the lust-filled stares and catcalls that adult women have to put up with all the time. She and her friends “are tired of being beautiful” and get rid of the shoes. The cultural idea is that if a girl is old enough to be interested in men, she’s old enough to be married to one. So Esperanza hangs onto her girlishness so that she can be single long enough to finish junior high. People tell her to get an education, to get out of their insular community, and she is determined to hold onto her power.

Women do not have power in this book. They are controlled by their fathers until they get married, when they’re controlled by their husbands. Too afraid to leave the apartment, or just locked in. There’s a brief interval when they’re brave enough to defy their fathers’ rule before they marry, and that is the only time that a woman is free to do what she likes.

She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes. She likes looking at the walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding cake.

The book did show me how great life is outside of Christian education. We came to a section where Esperanza goes to visit an oddly normal fortune-teller, and I pulled my tarot cards out of my bag (like the poor, they’re with me always), and since the students were interested, we had tarot readings all round. I expected the quiet Afghan boy to refuse, but he went along with it. He seemed a little uncomfortable with how accurate the reading was, and he’s not the first person to feel that my reading was closer to the truth than is strictly necessary. As I tell people, there’s no magic in it, the querent provides the interpretation, but still. Take a concept like Temperance or Balance and tell people it’s important to them, and of course you’ll be right because those concepts are important in every life. Anyway, the students were cool with it, I told the story to the supervisor and she thought it was great – secular academics make me feel good about myself because they don’t criticize me for being gay or interested in alternative spiritualities.

Women are not safe. In one section, Cisneros doesn’t come right out and say it, but I’m pretty sure Esperanza gets raped at a carnival. She goes with a friend, and the friend ditches her, and there’s a white man who starts talking about how pretty she is, and suddenly she’s talking about how people have lied to her about how great The Unnamed It is. In that context, she’s right. Sex can be beautiful and special and fun and wonderful, but it can also be terrifying and invasive and traumatizing. It can be the best or the worst thing that ever happened to someone. Or neither, it’s possible to have completely mediocre sexual experiences. But either way, why would someone teach a book with such an upsetting section to children? The first time I read the Red Clowns part I got so agitated that I felt physically ill. And then I had to teach it; I didn’t realize how emotional I get on the topic of rape. But I made it through, and the students were respectful, so our experience could have been much worse. I don’t know how Esperanza’s could have been. Some women have said that they’d rather have been killed, and some kill themselves to get away from the memory. Rape is an awful, evil thing. No one chooses it, and no one should have to experience it.

I suppose I should say something about the fact that this is a Latina community. But honestly, gender seems significantly more important than ethnicity in determining the lives of the characters. And poverty is poverty, no matter what your skin color is. I don’t belong to a recently immigrated community, but I know that my first name refers to a geographical term, a narrow strip of land between two bodies of water. I’ve even seen some on maps. Names having meaning is not specific to Spanish speakers. Religion as a tool of social control is not specific to Catholicism. Their community is insular, but she doesn’t present the uniquenesses of being Latina. Being a woman who’s poor is description enough, I guess.

As mentioned, I didn’t go looking for this book. I read it as a duty, so that I could do my job to the best of my ability. I found it horridly depressing, but I think it’s going to stay with me. The starkness of the writing lends a magical realism effect when she uses metaphors, but . . .

No wonder everybody gave up. Just stopped looking out when little Efren chipped his buck tooth on a parking meter and didn’t even stop Refugia from getting her head stuck between two slats in the back gate and nobody even looked up not once the day Angel Vargas learned to fly and dropped from the sky like a sugar donut, just like a falling star, and exploded down to earth without even an “Oh.”

Not exactly what I expected. This is the sequel to The Great and Secret Show, a fact that the cover should have been more forthcoming about (tsk tsk, Harper Collins). Those who survived the disasters at Palomo Grove and Trinity are back, though in a different setting. The biggest difference is that Barker breaks with his customary structure: normally it’s a bit like Fenimore Cooper’s double journeys, where we reach a conflict in the center of the book that seems final, but then there’s a twist and there are still greater evils for the heroes to defeat. In Everville, this doesn’t happen. We still have those greater evils from the previous book, and Barker chooses not to imagine any worse. The book is set up more like The House of the Seven Gables or Wuthering Heights, with their interest in things ending where they begin – we ascend the slope and then descend like in an ancient Hebrew poem, instead of climbing halfway, resting, and then climbing again.

As before, Tesla Bombeck is our protagonist, and as before, she doesn’t appear until nearly a hundred pages. No one from before does. Indeed, most of them aren’t central to the plot. Howie and Jo-Beth, the supernatural Romeo and Juliet, have a baby and are unhappy. She renews her incestuous interest in her twin brother, Tommy-Ray the Death-Boy, and Howie can’t handle it. Their story just doesn’t seem to interest Barker much, and they disappear for hundreds of pages at a time. Tommy-Ray was the counterpart to Tesla, but not any more. He’s still surrounded by the dead, but he’s lost his fascination with death. He’s growing up. Grillo is dying, but while he and Tesla were close in the first book, their journeys are widely disparate here. And then there’s Harry d’Amour, whose name I vaguely recall from the first book, but who takes on a role very similar to Tesla’s in defeating evil. I wanted the two of them to become romantic eventually, but it doesn’t happen. Kissoon, the enemy, also returns, more firmly enmeshed in the plot and the lives of the other characters than is immediately apparent.

Tesla sees America similarly to the way I do:

She had thought about coming back here many times in her five-year journey through what she liked to call the Americas, by which she meant the mainland states. They were not, she had many times insisted to Grillo, one country; not remotely. Just because they served the same Coke in Louisiana as they served in Idaho, and the same sitcoms were playing in New Mexico as were playing in Massachusetts, didn’t mean there was such a thing as America. When presidents and pundits spoke of the voice and will of the American people, she rolled her eyes. That was a fiction; she’d been told so plainly by a yellow dog that had followed her around Arizona for a week and a half during her hallucination period, turning up in diners and motel rooms to chat with her in such a friendly fashion she’d missed him when he disappeared.

These United States are more States than United. Even within a state, there are differences. Radio commercials keep telling me about the unity that comes with being Texan, but I still see snobbery and elitism and intolerance, the us vs them mentality that destroys societies. In my home state, it’s often apparent after a brief conversation whether someone belongs in Asheville or Wilmington or Durham, and there are subtle differences in accent and attitude as you move from Gastonia to Murphy. Americans are raised on a sense of individualism, and we don’t really cohere well. I often think that the idea that we can be governed by a single federal government is ludicrous; while that may make me sound like a Republican, I believe firmly in accepting the world as it’s given to me and making what beauty I can, which in politics means that I think a government’s job is to make people’s lives better, so I support the policies found in the Democratic Party more than the other. I am a Bernie Sanders man, and the label socialist doesn’t scare me the way it does some. Even if we succeed in electing him, though, I will keep my hopes closer to the earth than I did with Obama.

Maybe the messiahs we imagine are more important than the real thing.

It’s not so much the person I’m voting for as it is the ideals he espouses. Every politician compromises, and we all feel a little betrayed by them, but if we have someone who inspires as much cynicism as Hillary Clinton, or as much hatred as Donald Trump, how much further can we sink? It’s the ideals that are important, and the idealists that I will choose, every time.

There had been something to die for in those hard hearts, and that was a greater gift than those blessed with it knew; a gift not granted those who’d come after. They were a prosaic lot, in Owen’s estimations, the builders of suburbs and the founders of committees: men and women who had lost all sense of the tender, terrible holiness of things.

It’s the idealists that build countries, and it takes the prosy committee members to keep things going; but things change, and the builders of suburbs fight against it. As I tell people whenever it’s appropriate, remember your lessons from fourth-grade science class: if it doesn’t move and it doesn’t change, it’s not alive.

And, well, maybe dying isn’t the worst thing either.

Up they went, Norma wrapped in her shawl, onto the roof nine floors above Seventy-Fifth. Dawn was still a while away, but the city was already gearing up for another day. Norma looped her arm through Harry’s, and they stood together in silence for perhaps five minutes, while the traffic murmured below, and sirens wailed, and the wind gusted off the river, grimy and cold. It was Norma who broke the silence.

“We’re so powerful,” Norma said, “and so frail.”

“Us?”

“Everybody. Powerful.”

“I don’t think that’s the way most people feel,” Harry said.

“That’s because they can’t feel the connections. They think they’re alone. In their heads. In the world. I hear them all the time. Spirits come through, carryin’ on about how alone they feel, how terribly alone. And I say to them, let go of what you are – ”

“And they don’t want to do that.”

“Of course not.”

“I don’t like the sound of it either,” Harry said. “I’m all I’ve got. I don’t want to give it up.”

“I said to let go of it, not to give it up,” Norma said. “They’re not the same thing.”

“But when you’re dead – ”

“What’s dead?” Norma shrugged. “Things change but they don’t end. I told you.”

“And I don’t believe you. I want to, but I don’t.”

“Then I can’t convince you,” Norma said. “You’ll have to find out for yourself, one way or another.”

Again, think of science class: The Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy, things change shape, but they never begin or end, not really. They’re just reborn in a different form. The frontier spirit is a part of American life, not just the desire to strike off into new territory, but the desire to strike off alone into new territory. We don’t sort well with each other. Tesla and Raul share one brain for most of the book, but they still don’t fit comfortably.

“How come I didn’t see that?” she thought, confounded (as ever) by the fact that she and Raul could look through the same eyes and see the world so differently.

Perhaps it takes a British writer, someone from the outside, to see us as we really are. Someone who wasn’t raised on the shared delusion we call The American Dream.

Okay. New subject.

I once started reading Elizabeth George’s series of mystery novels, the ones with Inspector Lynley. The first one was quite good, and very helpful to me, but in time I saw that she was only looking at the worst side of humanity. Many mystery and horror writers only present us at our worst, which is perhaps why I don’t read extensively in the genres, but Barker doesn’t. He sees people, all the good and bad in them, and continues to love them. He even imagines things that are pure concentrated evil, worse than any real person could ever be, and yet when he sees the world, he sees its beauty and wonder.

As they turned the corner onto Phoebe’s street, out of the blue Harry said, “God, I love the world.”

It was such a simple thing to say, and it was spoken with such easy faith, Tesla could only shake her head.

“You don’t?” Harry said.

“There’s so much shit,” she said.

“Not right this minute. Right this minute it’s as good as it gets.”

“Look up the mountain,” she said.

“I’m not up the mountain,” Harry replied. “I’m here.”

And humanity, even the overly religious, homophobic, self-righteously selfish humanity, can be a source of incredible heartrending beauty.

Caught in the grip of the crowd, unable to entirely control her route, nor entirely concerned to do so, she felt curiously comforted. The touch of flesh on flesh, the stench of sweat and candy-sweetened breath, the sight of oozing skin and glittering eye, all of it was fine, just fine. Yes, these people were vulnerable and ignorant; yes, they were probably crass, most of them, and bigoted and belligerent. But now, right now, they were laughing and cheering and holding their babies high to see the parade, and if she did not love them, she was at least happy to be of their species.

And:

Was there anything more beautiful, Owen wondered as he left the coffee shop, than a sight of yearning on a human face? Not the night sky nor a boy’s buttocks could compare with the glory of June Davenport (Miss) dolled up like a whore and hoping to meet the man of her dreams before time ran out. He’d seen tale enough for a thousand nights of telling there on her painted face. Roads taken, roads despised. Deeds undone, deeds regretted.

And tonight – and every moment between now and tonight – more roads to choose, more deeds to do. She might be turning her head even now, or now, or now, and seeing the face she had longed to love. Or, just as easily, looking the other way.

There is beauty in every life, in every heart. Phoebe Cobb is a doctor’s receptionist in a small town in Oregon, stuck in a marriage she hates, surrounded by people she can’t abide, carrying more weight than Hollywood is comfortable with (I suspect that those of us who see with Southern eyes would describe her as normal, healthy-looking, as we do all women who are only twenty or thirty pounds overweight [But really, the ex had a good friend who was 5’6” and needed two bathroom scales to weigh herself, and she was very pretty and always dressed well, so I think she’s cute as a button]). She meets a housepainter, younger, thin, black, with a criminal record, and they have an affair. But it’s no ordinary fling; she’s not just some vulnerable female he can stick it to, and he’s not just some passing fancy. This is one of those loves that transcend space and time, and they go off to the dream-sea and find each other, even when separated by sleep, death, the earth, and the supernatural forces that exist only in fiction. Love makes her beautiful, and him luminescent. The human capacity to love is often startling in its depth and breadth, shocking in the unpredictability of whom it joins. As in The Scarlet Letter, love spills out of our hearts and makes the world beautiful.

Harmon O’Connell is a visionary Irishman, traveling through the colonization of the American West. A mystical figure gives him a medallion and a dream, a dream of a shining city founded on the spot where he will bury the medallion. He dies before he reaches the spot where Everville will be built, but he passes the medallion and the dream on to his daughter Maeve, in love.

“It was a fine dream I dreamed,” he murmured, raising his trembling hand toward her. She took it. “But you’re finer, child,” he said. “You’re the finest dream I ever had. And it’s not so hard to die, knowing you’re in the world.”

She builds the city on a whorehouse, another type of love, and is eventually driven from it by the intolerant religionists who settle there. But some things don’t die, not right away, and she continues to define herself by her love for her dead supernatural husband. His ghost hangs around, and eventually, at long last, they are reunited. Love brings us all together. Love breeds hope, and hope keeps the world turning, at least the part of the world that concerns human beings. And love and hope keep us alive, even after the body decays and our names are forgotten.

It’s time for us all to put our lives in order, Harry, whether we’re dead, living, or something else entirely. It’s time to make our peace with things, so we’re ready for whatever happens next.

I’ve been working at this, these last several weeks. I’m using some of the techniques I learned after the divorce; I’m sure it was frustrating to my counselor friend just how little I was ready to change then, but things are different now. Back then, I had lost so much that I was afraid to let go of my pain and anger and general fucked-up-ness because I didn’t have anything else, no other foundation on which to build an identity. They were the only things I was sure of, in a world where everything was changing and falling and dying around me. But now, now I know that I won’t be destroyed by any of this. Death is just a change like any other, and when it comes to me it will be as natural and comfortable as walking from one room to the next. The anxiety and depression are dramatically less than they have been for many years, and I’ve even had some episodes of unreasoning manic joy as my brain chemistry rebalances itself.

My tarot cards keep telling me that it’s time to stop resting in solitude and to get involved in life again. Maybe that’s what I’m getting my brain fixed up for; maybe what happens next is that, like Owen’s waitress, I’m going to turn my head and see the man I’ve been longing to love. Texas is just a waystation for me; I’m determined not to end up here, because my end is not here. I am determined not to die in Texas. I think I may be headed for a larger city next; for all I love the woods, I would like to live somewhere I don’t have to drive to work every day, where people are too busy with their own lives to waste time observing mine. And cities are where gay men tend to find each other. I loved New York and Paris, and I won’t be looking for a drunken tourist or a sadistic Algerian this time. My life is amazing, and I want to go live it someplace awesomer than here.