Offering: May 2022
The Tower: To cultivate & maintain
Dear Friends ,
I’m doing something a little different this month: A whole Offering on one card only: The Tower. *cue ominous music.* (I didn’t know there was a solar eclipse happening this weekend when I wrote the piece but am not surprised.)
I hope you’ll find it useful whether you’re a Tarot practitioner, lover of symbols or simply a seeker of helpful analogies. It turned out to be quite a Tower-y week for me (as you’ll see, if you read or listen) and I personally was grateful to have had some visuals and language to support me through.
I’m in the preparation stages of a pre-recorded Tarot 101 class which will be a set of audio recordings, slides and prompts to support new or deepening practices, which is exciting. Before I do that I am offering a 101 class live again in June for the first time in a few months and maybe for the last time in a while. For details and registration, click here.
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Image description: Jessica’s hand holding The Tower card by Pamela Colman Smith for the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot with a colorful rug in the background.
To listen to me read this Offering aloud, click here.
I’m starting this Offering at 5:08 pm on a Monday. I almost never write after 12pm. I’m sitting on my bed while my new puppy, Mango, sleeps in his crate. Someone’s hammering and another dog is yipping elsewhere on the block. I’m tired. I shouldn’t write when I’m tired. But I’m also full of feeling right now—fear, mostly—and I write well when I can feel something acutely.
A few mornings ago, I pulled The Tower about something else I was feeling scared about. I turned to the sixteenth letter in Meditations on the Tarot—a book of twenty-two letters on the major arcana—because that book is where I go when I need to see one of the majors from a new angle.
I’ve read every letter now, but it’s so dense that there’s a lot to miss on a first, second or even third pass. I think if I kept reading Meditations for the rest of my life I would continue to find gems, like I do with the cards themselves. And I hope that I will.
The reason I feel fear is because a tiny animal lives with me now and we don’t always know how to communicate with each other. The things he says and does are—of course—not always legible for me, and vice versa. This means that he does things I don’t like, I do things he doesn’t like, and we very often don’t know how to express or deal with those things when they happen.
I remember nothing from the first time I read the letter on The Tower. It wasn’t one of the letters that really stood out to me the first time around. I loved The Hierophant, The Emperor, The Hermit and The Star. This time reading, though, I connect with a phrase that I think I’ll keep with me for life: “cultivate and maintain” (2002).
Meditations on the Tarot is a book that interprets the major arcana through a lens of Christian Hermeticism, so the author draws a lot on stories from the Bible among many other things. He comments on the symbolism of gardens which he says signify “a state of the world where there is cooperation and equilibrium between Spirit and Nature” (2002).
A garden is distinct from other landscapes, he writes: like a desert, which signifies passivity and non-movement of both Nature and Spirit. Or a jungle where Nature acts alone, or a village, which signifies Spirit only, acting. The garden, at least according to the biblical creation story is where humans were placed and given their fundamental task: to “cultivate and maintain this ‘garden’” (2002).
What it means practically to cultivate and maintain, writes the author, is that our task as humans is not either to act or allow, rather it is “to work, and to allow growth; to think, and to await the growth and ripening of thought…to will and to dare…to know and to be silent” (2002, italics are mine).
The author’s use of the word “dare” here, in connection with “will” is interesting to me. It shows that exerting will in the world is one expression of courage, but that there’s another way to be brave: to trust what we can’t see or understand just yet, or maybe ever.
The author writes that cultivating and maintaining is about uniting below with above. And that might sound lofty or esoteric but I think it’s also really pragmatic. It’s happening anytime we approach a challenge at both the “lower” level of what we can control, and the “higher” level of what we can’t.
In a simple example of Mango and I, I see that there are things I can do and learn to support him, and there are larger forces at play, too. Like the fact that he’s growing, learning and changing every day, so some things he needs to be taught and some things he just needs to grow out of.
So if the cultivating in “cultivate and maintain” is about focusing on what you can control, what’s the maintaining?
For me, it’s maintaining kinship with the unknown through dialogue with, and devotion to the mysteries. These Offerings are an example of what that looks like for me in practice, but it’s also daily prayer. Faith and devotion help me remember that my best is not always good enough and that's okay, because my wand is one among many.
If I believe—truly believe—in the ten thousand mystery forces at work on me and on the world in each moment, well then I can both do my best and hold lightly to outcomes. I can throw the dice and trust that physics, Fortuna, God and whoever else is part of the great fate chorus are going to huddle together and hand-pick some next possible steps for me.
On good days I can remain curious about what’s transforming beyond my own hands’ magic, and about what the sun, wind, rain and soil can and will do to the garden, regardless of what I might do or not do.
As many of you know, I love to track the symbols of the Tarot in old stories. One place The Tower shows up is in the biblical Tower of Babel story. There’s a situation where a group of people are cultivating—they’re working, exerting will in the world, knowing what they want and imposing a vision—and they’re building a very high tower.
There is a lot of interesting commentary on this story out there but for now I’ll say that for whatever reason, God doesn’t like or want the tower and strikes it down. This can be read a lot of ways, one being that there’s simply too much cultivating going on and not enough maintaining. Too much exertion of will and not enough daring to trust, to listen, to wait.
To illustrate the point that no human will is free from being touched by a Divine force or forces, the people build this elaborate structure and then in an instant, a thunderbolt strikes and it’s down. This reveals “the relationship between the will and destiny—between what one wants and what happens” (2002).
Since re-reading the letter on the Tower I’ve been journaling about it quite a bit. It’s been helpful because, as a new puppy parent I have been really in the trenches in terms of reckoning with the limits of my own personal will. I read everything I possibly can, watch YouTube videos, talk to people I trust, take him to socialization classes, try everything and still, I am living with a tiny non-human animal who invites me every day multiple times a day into a dance with things I can’t control and often don’t particularly like.
One of the most helpful things, though, has been to remember that a lot of what puppies do, they grow out of. The constant biting is part of their early development, for example, and while there are some things we can do to make it less painful for us and more fruitful for him, much of it just has to be endured.
It’s been a daily struggle to remember that in a way, all the researching and reading and implementing techniques is the easy part. It’s the building of the Tower. The hard part is trusting that this baby animal is growing every single day due to forces that have not a single thing to do with what we’re doing or not doing.
And while his being impacted by the greater forces doesn’t necessarily look like a thunderbolt striking, the point is that his life is being touched by something greater all the time, something I’d call Divine in that it’s beyond my mortal influence. And sure, that process is overlapping with my own, but a lot of it is not available for my meddling.
On April 26, I wrote in my journal:
In The tower of babel story the people built it up and the Divine, as destroyer, said “no, not today.” It’s easy to be so busy building that you forget to maintain. Forget to ask what maintain means, even.
Gratitude is a way to maintain, I think. Thank you for another day to cultivate the simplest of things: This body, this home, these relationships, a good lunch. Swept floors, a pot of tea made with deep breaths into pink lung tissue.
Gratitude is a maintenance practice that shows me again and again what’s important to cultivate while also situating me in relationship to a blessing force, which I am not behind or in control of. That, for me, is what makes giving thanks so powerful. When the small self connects with something more vast than we know our selves to be, we call that transformative.
And that’s exactly what gratitude does. It places me imminently inside the question: when I say “thank you,” who am I addressing? To what or whom do I owe the sweetness of this list of benedictions?
By the very virtue of thanks giving, I am acknowledging that this was not all me. And in turn, I remember that the answers to my biggest and most frustrating life questions won’t come only from me, either.
In Meditations, the author writes that “all autonomous activity from below inevitably meets with the divine reality above. What one has built through the autonomous effort of the ‘lower self’ must, sooner or later, be confronted with divine reality, and undergo the effects of comparison with it” (2002).
I think this is a beautiful, useful interpretation of The Tower. Because what else does The Tower stand for but a time in life when things aren’t going the way we want? It’s not just that things are falling apart but that they’re doing so in a way that is scary, disorienting, shaking the ground we stand on—a ground made up of personal wants, needs, preferences, neuroses.
I do think it's worth noting that there are many situations in which naming the thunderbolt “Divine” could be construed as cruel. If we understand the Divine as something that exists inside of a good/evil binary, for example, like to say that some benevolent force is responsible for the terrible things that happen and in many cases are actively done to people, communities, regions, ecosystems, well then yes, I think that is quite cruel.
I guess my own understanding of the Divine is less moralistic; I recall Ivone Gebara’s definition of God, for example, as relatedness (1999) when I say that I understand the Divine as a convergence of relationships that I exist alongside and in, that I can’t always see or understand, and do not control.
I think what I like most about not putting a value-judgment on the Divine as benevolent is that then things don’t have to happened “for the best” to be accepted. There’s probably less closure and fewer feel-good storylines here, but more room to maneuver, I think.
Things happen in life that aren’t okay, and it being the will of God, the Universe, the Divine, or however else one might call it doesn’t magically make it good or right or wanted or even workable. It only makes it a reality that begs to be acknowledged somehow.
Note: On the day I finished this Offering I injured my knee while out walking with Mango and have had a hard time walking ever since. It surely is not “for the best” with a three-month-old puppy, but in a way I’m grateful still. Because the injury is giving me an immediate opportunity to see whether this month’s Offering and the “cultivate and maintain” concept actually holds up in the trenches. If it’s useful when one really needs it. For me, it has been! And I hope it might aid you when you need it, too.
To listen to me read this Offering aloud, click here.
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Anonymous. (2002). Meditations on the tarot: A journey into Christian hermeticism. TarcherPerigee.
Gebara, I. (1999). Longing for running water: Ecofeminism and liberation. Augsburg Fortress Publishers.