(This post was available a week early to my patrons. My Patreon helps support this work, and I appreciate my patrons more than I can say! This was also cross-posted with my narrative therapy blog, Wayfinding.)
Tarot is an important part of my life, and has been for quite a few years.
I use tarot as a way to think about what’s happening in my life, with tarot spreads acting as invitations to think about situations in specific and focused ways. I have also used tarot in narrative therapy in a similar way – inviting community members to engage with the cards as a visual way to explore their stories. I also use tarot as part of my slowly developing spiritual practice. I’ve written before about how I use tarot as self-care, in this post that introduced my tarot practice, and in this post about how to use tarot as a self-storying tool.
I participated in parts of the Owl and Bones August tarot challenge on Instagram. There was a prompt for each day, and it was an interesting process to notice was came up, what kept coming up, and how I responded to the cards. (I will admit that my participation was a bit more hit and miss while was away, mostly because I was so sick.)
On August 22nd, the prompt was “Where are things out of balance?”
I drew the Nine of Wands.
Image description: The Nine of Wands from The Wild Unknown tarot deck, against a black background.
This card is about stamina and inner strength – it’s about continuing on the long path.
Carrie Mallon, a tarot blogger who has written posts for each of the cards in the Wild Unknown deck (which I’m using here) writes about the Nine of Wands:
“The Nine of Wands shows that sometimes we need to draw on our inner reserves. We need to protect what is important to us, we need to protect our energy. We need to keep going, even though we may feel a little tired from being so on-guard. This kind of perseverance can be admirable, but can also lead to weariness.”
I thought, of course. Work is out of balance! I’m working too much. I’m always on the edge of burnout. I’m too busy, there’s too much going on, there’s too much pressure and stress. Work. This is about work.
But for some reason, I paused before posting the picture and that little response to it on Instagram. Instead, I sat with it for a few days.
I wondered why it was so easy to come to that interpretation.
I wondered about what the effect of having this story so prominently in my mind might be – how does it impact my days to always be framing myself in terms of “the edge of burnout” and “doing too much”?
I was a little uncomfortable with this line of inquiry, because I am always cautious when I feel myself edging towards “shift the narrative.” So often, this is used as a bludgeon against people who are legitimately struggling with injustice.
“Just shift your narrative!”
“Just focus on the positive!”
How about, just bite me.
However, this idea of shifting my own narrative is a theme that’s been coming up for me in a lot of areas lately. I have noticed that I’ve pushed so hard away from weaponized positivity that I sometimes feel like I’ve lost my connection to any kind of positivity at all. It’s easy, lately, to find myself feeling hopeless, trapped, powerless.
Even though it is unjust to demand that hurting people “focus on the positive,” that doesn’t mean there is never a time to re-frame.
In my narrative therapy training, I’ve been taught to “linger with intent” in the problem story – to invite community members to talk about their problems without shame or judgement, and to look for ways to strengthen their connection to preferred outcomes and preferred selves within those stories.
What this looks like in practice is that I listen to the stories that community members bring into narrative therapy sessions with an ear open to “double-storying” – what’s not being said here, but might be present anyway? In a story of anger, for example, there is sometimes a sense of justice that refuses to be silenced. In a story of hopelessness or exhaustion, there might be a cherished belief that things could be, and should be, different.
This means deepening stories of resistance and response, looking for those moments of choice and asking questions that connect people to their own acts of agency and to the ways in which they’ve responded to the problems in their lives. It also means looking for what people are valuing – what they hold to be precious or cherished, what they want for themselves and the world, what they hope for and dream – and working to strengthen their connections to the histories of those values.
This feels different than telling people to “shift their perspective” or to “think positive.”
It’s hard for me to write about this in clear and confident ways because I’m in the middle of the struggle myself.
What I do in a narrative therapy session is try to help people shift how they are oriented towards their problems and their own stories. I try to shift the narrative!
But outside of narrative therapy sessions and the respectful framing that I’m learning in my narrative therapy training, what I see in so much self-help writing is demands to “change your perspective and change your life,” with a subtext that seems to say that people have invited their own suffering, that they’re experiencing the consequences of their own “low vibrations” or “negative thoughts,” or that they have both the power and the responsibility to single-handedly and through the power of positive thinking change their external context. I hate these demands so much.
But what I’ve noticed in myself is that in rejecting the culture of “manifest your best life” positive thinking, I have also rejected a lot of helpful wisdom (wisdom that shows up in narrative therapy, too, and that I love in that context!) In rejecting the idea that individuals are responsible for changing social contexts that they can’t control, I have found myself also rejecting the hope for any change at all. I have focused so much on the harms of individualizing problems that I sometimes think I have forgotten the hope of collective action. I have focused on resisting narratives of “manifestation” and I think that I have sometimes lost sight of narratives of agency and choice.
I don’t know what to do about this.
But I do know this – when I pulled the Nine of Wands, my mind leapt to a very specific narrative of myself. It is the narrative of overwork. The narrative of “the edge of burnout.” It is a narrative I know very well, and anytime a narrative comes that easily, it’s worth questioning.
Because, even though it is a narrative that comes with my critique of capitalism and my feelings of powerlessness in the face of late stage capitalism, it’s also a thin narrative of myself. (“Thin description allows little space for the complexities and contradictions of life. It allows little space for people to articulate their own particular meanings of their actions and the context within which they occurred.” – from What is Narrative Therapy on the Dulwich Centre’s excellent site.)
I started wondering, what if the thing that’s out of balance isn’t work, but my narrative about work?
(And, since it’s Sunday when I’m writing this, and Sunday in the Tender Year is when I pick a binary and challenge it, what if it isn’t either/or, but rather both?)
I started asking myself what is rendered invisible when I focus only on the part of my working self that is so tired and overwhelmed?
The answers came slowly, especially because I was sick. But they did come eventually.
What gets erased is the joy I take in my work.
What gets erased are the positive effects of my work.
What gets erased is the support I have in my work (including from my patrons!) and the growth that I am inviting into my life by continuing to do this work.
My choices get erased in this narrative, which is a narrative of work being foisted on me – work that I have to do in order to pay the rent, work that I have to do in order to get where I need to be.
But I do feel joy in my work.
There are positive effects that result from my work.
I have so much support for my work, and I do make choices.
After sitting with this idea of work / narratives of work, I laid out another tarot spread for myself.
Image description: A Wild Unknown tarot spread and a muffin on a wooden table. The spread includes the Nine of Wands, the Four of Cups, the Ace of Wands, the Four of Wands, and the Son of Pentacles. The Father of Cups is also visible on top of the deck.
I pulled out the Nine of Wands, and then laid out my favourite spread with that as the focus.
My favourite spread is the elements – a five card spread with a focus card (or a card that represents the situation or the whole), and then cards for air/mental self, water/emotional self, earth/physical or material self, and fire/creative, passionate, or spiritual self.
In the air position, I had the Four of Cups.
The Four of Cups in the Wild Unknown always strikes me as being a card about feelings of scarcity – that rat is trying so hard to keep control of all the cups, to make sure they don’t tip or get stolen. The Four of Cups is often about feeling like there isn’t enough, and in this deck (more than most others) it makes me think of the way scarcity can invite us into desperation and a desire to control our situation more tightly than we need to, more tightly than we actually can. This card says, “I can’t let go of anything, or I will lose everything.”
It landed like a hammer and I almost didn’t even flip the rest of the spread. This card speaks directly to what I had been thinking about over the four days since originally pulling the Nine of Wands.
Maybe I’m out of balance about this because I am so focused on scarcity. I am so terrified of scarcity. I am terrified of financial insecurity – I have experienced acute financial scarcity in the past, and I am chronically on the edge of it (and have been since my divorce), and those thoughts consume me sometimes. Especially when I think about work, and about throwing myself more fully into my narrative work.
I noticed the moon in both the Four of Cups and the Nine of Wands. That dark crescent in the Four is a rich golden colour in the Nine of Wands – two different narratives of the same moon. Am I working towards that bright sliver of light, or am I clutching what little I can in the shadows? It’s the same thing, but it’s a very different story of that same thing.
So that first position is air, how I’m thinking about the situation.
I moved on to the rest of the spread.
Water – how am I feeling about this situation? Where are my emotions here?
The Ace of Wands. This is a card about new beginnings, and about passion. When I think about work, I do think in terms of scarcity – a lack of time, a lack of money, a lack of resources, a lack of faith in myself. And a lot of that is justified, but it isn’t the whole story. Because when I feel about work, particularly about my narrative work, my community organizing work, my writing work – I feel passionate and excited. I feel like I’m building something! I feel like there’s value here, and the potential to do something new and needed. This card resonated for me, too.
Then across the spread to Fire – where is my passion and creativity here?
The Son of Pentacles. I see the same golden crescent moon as in the Nine of Wands, and notice the pentacle (a symbol of earth and grounding and materiality) centered in it – another narrative of this same story that adds stability to the potential and “enoughness” of that rich crescent.
Carrie Mallon writes about this card:
The Son of Pentacles leans into the card, pressing forward slowly but surely. An orange crescent moon frames a pentacle above him. The background is dark, but lightens where he gazes.
The Son of Pentacles is not one to act with great haste or passion. He is purposeful and careful in all that he does. Once he has decided to move in a given direction, that is simply where he goes. He sticks the course and slugs through the mud to reach his goals. He doesn’t always trust easily, but if someone does earn his trust, he stands by them without fail.
On the positive side, this attention to detail can be essential. The Son of Pentacles is thorough and has unparalleled determination to finish what he starts. On the negative side, he can fall prone to tunnel vision.
…[The] Son of Pentacles is looking down at his chosen path. He is so resolute in his endeavors that he may forget to look up and assess his current surroundings. He may have a difficult time with changes and flexibility.
That also resonates with what I’d been thinking about this whole work/narratives of work thing. I recognize my own determination, but I can also see how sometimes I get focused on a particular idea or narrative and it’s hard for me to deviate from that. I also find this interesting because this card is in the fire position – it’s all about passion. But the Son of Pentacles is not a passionate card. He’s determined, focused, attentive but not passionate. And I am passionate. I am passionate in general but I am especially passionate about my work.
Except, not so much lately.
Lately, I’ve been so tired. I’ve been so fixed on how hard it is, how hard I’m working, how hard I have to keep working, and I haven’t been feeling my fire. I’ve been feeling sad and hopeless lately – climate change, economics, politics. I’ve been doing my work, but I’ve been doing it more like the Son of Pentacles than I would like.
And the lovely thing about that is that I can make choices about whether I continue like this! The cards are not fixed, fatalistic. The cards are a conversation. And I can make choices, make changes. I can invite more fire into this part of my life.
Finally, Earth – where is my physical and material self in this?
The Four of Wands. Where the Four of Cups is about scarcity and lack, the Four of Wands is about celebration and reaching milestones.
I’m interpreting this card as an invitation to notice successes as they happen, rather than constantly watching for upcoming failures or challenges.
The fact is, some things have gone really well in the last while! I have First Class Honours in my first course of the Masters program. My birthday offer of $37 narrative therapy sessions has been popular, and I only have 25 of these sessions left. (If you’d like to take advantage of this offer, get in touch! I’d love to work with you.) I have a lot of ideas for posts and projects, and lots of people are interested in participating in these projects. The next zine is almost ready to be printed!
I’m going to try to notice those things when they happen, and to let myself linger in those stories of success and hope.
It’s really difficult looking at our narratives and allowing them to shift (or even acknowledging that a shift might be possible or desirable).
I appreciate the way that tarot invites me into these difficult and rich conversations with myself and with my stories.