Principles of Hermeticism, 5/15 Version

1. We practice analogical thinking, which is a mental as well as creative and embodied skill. It is a whole way of being in the universe, and it changes everything. It has only a little to do with ideas that are easy to grasp like horoscopes or spellcasting, little more than it has to do with, for example, gardening or auto repair. Still, if you like the idea of possibilities like these, you will like this way of thinking (assuming you understand that there will be sacrifice), and one way in is as good as another.

2. We practice analogical thinking in a tradition, thinking about the symbols that have come down through history, the paths they’ve taken as they come down, and the ways that people have thought about them, understood them, and lived lives shaped by them. We understand the tradition by searching out this trail of symbols until we are a part of it.

3. We affirm that this tradition is, analogically, also a kind of hollow conduit. There is no inner secret that can once and for all be revealed, so there is no possibility of dogma. It is engagement with the process of interpretation that is crucial–interpretation, commentary, and also inspired expression.

4. We acknowledge that something about this process is itself a metaphor. There’s something about life which at its core is hollow, untouchable, and visible only in its incidental diversity. As above, so, infinitely and impenetrably, below, as usual.

Five of Swords

 I have a beautiful new tarot deck, the Anima Mundi tarot, and this is the card I keep pulling out of it: the five of swords (actually, last week it was the three of swords, but that bird has flown and now we’re just left with the feathers). I’ve pulled maybe six personal cards out of this new deck, and the five of swords has been at least two of them. The atmosphere here is oppressive; I saw a sky a lot like this the other day when I was racing my bike to get home ahead of the rain. You can tell it’s about to pour, only maybe not–there’s also a timelessness, a kind of interminable quality.

There’s a big sense of heaviness, for sure. Right in the middle of the card there’s also an emptiness, a missing bird who left only scattered feathers. I think a lot about missing birds, because I think of the Platonist/Sufi metaphor, the two wings that it takes to fly. The wings of the minds are roughly sense data (or data that could be collected with the senses, empirical data), and the stories that allow us to string these data points together in a way that makes sense. In between is an imaginary bird that is as real as anything, although, to be fair, we tend to overestimate the amount that anything is real. What reality is might be the imagination of something solid that is making these two wings of experience work together.

This card confused me when I got up this morning, but now I’m starting to feel it in my bones. Nothing tragic has happened, but I can’t quite settle down. Plans have changed, and I can’t adjust. Something is missing. I feel, looking at this image, a sinking in my chest and a hollowness, but also a quiet in the darkness. Quiet—yes, this card has that in spades (or swords, in the tarot).

Nobody likes this card very much, but that quiet is deep and hard-won. There’s the calm after the storm, the feeling of having really been through it and come out the other side. Maybe there’s something about shadow integration here, too: there’s some aftermath of violence for all of us in late-stage capitalism and maybe just in life, but I can’t help but notice that the swords here are a little like the shape of a door. When you choose to get up and move forward, there’s always something on the other side.

The Shape of a Snake

What is the shape of a snake? I picture it something like a sine wave; I picture it coming up out of a hole in the ground and then going back down.

Traditionally, snake is sometimes seen as a psychopomp–a guide for souls traveling between different realms–a quality that is often assigned to animals with habits like that.

Snake is different than a lot of the shapes that I think about because, of course, it’s alive. It’s four-dimensional in the time sense (like all living things and maybe all objects in general, but few evoke the intersection of geometry and movement as much as a snake does).

Snake’s movement is also multi-dimensional. It undulates forward-ish, and simultaneously, at times, is sheds its skin. Snake is engaged in a process that is directional and also, maybe equally, evolutionary. The snake that arrives home at night is clearly not the same one that left in the morning; it is literally the shape of a process.

On a mystical level, snake has another important power. This is maybe the time to mention that my younger child is absolutely obsessed with snakes. We also share an interest in Greek mythology and were recently reading the story of Eurydice, who carelessly stepped on a poisonous snake while fleeing a suitor. This should not be a big deal, my child insists that you know, because stepping on a poisonous snake isn’t going to hurt anybody besides the snake.

Unfortunately for Eurydice, the snake was actually venomous, and fortunately for the snake, that’s a whole different situation. A big part of snake magic is the idea of pharmakon, the p̶o̶i̶s̶o̶n̶ venom that’s also a medicine, the way the shape of evolution gets inside of you.

 

Holiday Gifts, 2021

Back in the fall I finally located a perfect statue of Hekate, so when I was hired for an unexpected Halloween tarot gig I used the money to order it from Russia. According to the tracking information, Hekate was stuck in Germany for over a month. Over the last three days, while I did not receive any further updates on that situation, I did receive a number of other fairly bizarre early holiday gifts from the universe:

First, there was a vision of the shape of a snake (I was trying to read, but I couldn’t concentrate). In the past, I’ve been aware of the moment when snakes shed their skin as discrete, I guess, and I appreciate that I, too, have had occasion to transform dramatically. This time, though, I was struck by the inescapable nature and interiority of snake itself, of personal evolution as an ongoing, all-consuming lifestyle/process.

I succeeded at reading a bit after that. I was starting Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Ensouling Language, which, as I mentioned to James, is possibly my new favorite book. To be honest, I didn’t realize it was possible for a book about writing like this one (which acknowledges that writing is literally magical and still explains some very concrete ideas about how to do it) to exist. The introduction contains the line, “to become a writer, you must shed your skin.” As usual, this kind of thing makes me think about time; in my experience shedding skin requires a lot of that.

When I interrupted myself again to compulsively check my email, I received a third somewhat unexpected thing. It was a message from a long-ago college professor — likely the one, as they say, “most familiar with your academic ability and potential.” I had at this point been grinding for six months on a moon-shot application for a funded philosophy grad program, having admitted belatedly that I actually do care about academics (probably too much). My professor told me that he was retired and would not be writing me a letter of recommendation. He also, oddly and correctly, guessed the specific nature of my late-blooming academic interest and sent me a nice quote by Maximus of Tyre:

“God Himself, the father and fashioner of all that is, older than the Sun or the Sky, greater than time and eternity and all the flow of being, is unnameable by any lawgiver, unutterable by any voice, not to be seen by any eye. But we, being unable to apprehend His essence, use the help of sounds and names and pictures, of beaten gold and ivory and silver, of plants and rivers, mountain-peaks and torrents, yearning for the knowledge of Him, and in our weakness naming all that is beautiful in this world after His nature.”

This was, however, fairly devastating news for me and my project, as I have no real, workable backup plan. The next day was kind of a blur but did not involve any notable gifts unless you count the fact that, due to CFS, strong emotion of any kind tends to leave me feeling hungover or a bit like I’ve got the flu, in any case embroiled in another kind of exhausting process that often takes up a lot of my time and energy.

The morning after that I felt a little better and, before starting work, I tried some writing exercises from the book. I wrote a short poem that isn’t particularly good but is notable in that I’ve never before sat down cold with the intention to start writing and ended up with a poem. It contains the line, “I wonder about radiance,” which is true.

I received two more notable messages that day, too: 1) My editor, who is often difficult to get in touch with, is ready to move forward on laying out my book, suggesting the eventual resolution of that particular process. By spring, perhaps? And, 2) Another old professor — one of my favorites and also my best remaining hope of getting any letters — is dying of cancer. Sad, and that’s also, on the level of my application, pretty much that.

Just before the end of the third day, I finally got this somewhat unexpected package.

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

I am on the internet a lot. The other day, a few hours after I join millions of Americans in a news hole getting shocked by the violence of the capital invasion, I write something about Greek history on Facebook and notice that nobody else is talking about anything normal yet. Later that day, an advocate on Twitter asks, “What are the stereotypes of Autistic people that your masking is most designed to avoid?” and I instantly think about the things that interest me and the things that don’t really interest me that much. The things that interest me are a bit hard to explain but largely revolve around conflict, ontology, hypnosis and other things that go on in the deep sea of the unconscious – so you can see that that covers a lot of ground, but possibly not quite enough.

Although I didn’t go anywhere this year, I did have an extended summer vacation of sorts when my partner’s craft business went finally underwater and lockdown cancelled our festival season. Luckily we both qualify for unemployment even though my formal work history is spotty. Years ago I worked as a receptionist, and I often think of it because I have never had such a feeling that something I was formally qualified for i.e. sitting at a desk intersected with something that anyone was willing to pay me for. When we lose our jobs – my partner, formal, and me, largely informal, assisting with that – I think as I so often have that it’s odd that nobody would rather pay me for ontology.

Instead, for a month or so I procrastinate and process anxiety by throwing myself into computer programming, which is fairly unique in terms of being an in-demand skill you can technically teach yourself. At times I think that I’m not up to it, but an article on the internet tells me something pretty brilliant, which is that the key to programming is just to keep going when you think you can’t. I hadn’t tried that yet because nobody had ever explained it to me, but after that point everything (and I mean everything) seems to work better. I keep going until I learn that I can get a job, and that job will pay about the same as being a receptionist.

So, I keep my hand in at sitting at desks. I miss practicing hypnosis, and I think about metaphors a lot. The idea is that you tell a story with symbolism that relates to somebody’s problem and you don’t even have to tell them what to do about it or make them think too hard; all that is taken care of automatically under the surface. It’s hard to practice hypnosis now and I’m overloaded on computers, so I decide to start learning Latin and Greek in my spare time. I’m discovering that the Greeks in particular have a lot to say about violence, ontology and the subconscious. My family, who had previously found my Duolingo Spanish about drunken parrots amusing, make fun of me a little for the Greek about throwing Achaeans into the wine-dark sea. I agree that I’m circling a bit. I find it very hard to focus.

People on the internet say that it’s ok to feel sad and worried. I don’t feel sad or worried very much at first, so occasionally I make up for it by worrying about that. It is true that I’m always, always tired. I spend much of the summer lying on the ground outside to escape the heat, though I realize that we, my family and I, are probably also trying to escape each other at times. We argue about stupid things, because nobody has any extra bandwidth. My partner and I try out a rule: you must mention everything that happens that annoys you. Later, we scrap that rule. Our house isn’t big, but it is consistently cleaner than it has ever been as a survival strategy. I try different things, too, like not eating lunch. It’s amazing how quickly every day seems to evaporate with so little to do.

One day, I go to a protest. My partner has gone to a lot already, but I’m pushed over a particular personal line when a protester in our city is thrown into an unmarked white van. I show up wearing black and a mask and think of the time years ago when we still used to make it to bigger, more dramatic anarchist protests. There was the one where we were arrested for no real reason at all and the other, maybe later, where I guess there was more of a reason: the crowd, further forward, was fighting cops with tear gas canisters and rocks, and the whole crowd surged backward and forward, human waves crashing against the apparently immovable. The time we were arrested I was held in a jail cell overnight and the really memorable part was the repetitive thought that I had had enough. I felt like I was on the verge of getting up and walking out of there again and again, and the solid reality of the cell walls somehow managed to continue being shocking. Today I notice that I mostly just want to fight cops, which makes me feel alive, and that makes me feel uncomfortable and problematic.

The compulsion to make things also makes me feel alive – to write, or maybe just do some knitting – but at times trying to make any of that happen also feels like crashing into a wall. I practice sitting at a desk. I click through my email again and notice that I’m on the mailing list for a course about breaking through writer’s block (there’s an online course about pretty much everything this year). This course costs seven hundred dollars nobody has, but I listen to the free sample recordings while I clean the house one more time. They’re brilliant, actually – about the Feldenkrais method, which combines embodied mindfulness with the idea that constraints lead to neural growth and that paradox, deeply felt in the body, can lead to alchemical transformation and spontaneous resolution without any further feeling of effort.

Our children are, of course, out of school, at first temporarily, then for the summer. At this point,  the summer is becoming something different, similar but much colder. The children fall into internet holes, too, which worries me, though they seem to magically materialize on the rare occasions when I actually feel like writing. One of the children is struggling significantly, which worries me a lot. Our new house rule is, if you’re not ok with something, you actually do have to say it.

When I’m not completely exhausted, I sometimes clear the spot between the couch and the table and try to do yoga. I try to get my kids to do it with me, even though they’re not interested. I stand on my head waiting for the moment when it seems impossible to hold the position any longer. They say this is the moment when yoga actually starts.

2020 Hedge Notes

In 2020, a couple of my huge personal themes were metaphor and boundaries. This is a series of notes I wrote that seemed worth saving to revisit in the future:

1. Hedgerows. In England and probably other places, they used to separate everybody’s property from everybody else’s. But also, they were literally made of hedges and incredibly diverse ecosystems tend to exist in (h)edge environments. Due to the way that boundaries actually connect everything to everything else, they’re also crucial corridors for wildlife migration.

2. Boundaries, in general, interpersonal and otherwise, and their generative properties.

3. Limits, physical and creative, and the way that no one individual, unique thing can exist without them.

4. Learning that in qi gong/Chinese traditional medicine the viscera and fascia are considered, rather than just the stuff that happens to connect the organs, muscles and bones, to be the really important parts that conduct the life energy and must be healthy if anything else is going to work.

5. Learning that in the Chaldean oracles, Hekate was described as — as well as the Anima Mundi (world soul, uniting matter and spirit much like Psyche, the soul, unites mind and body) — *a membrane*. Meaning that her own being defined the boundaries of the created world, the distinction between the world of ideas and the world of form.

6. The letter X as a symbol of Hekate, representing the union of opposites but also, as it was used to mark boundaries, the idea of separation itself.

7. The critical faculty — the distinction between the conscious and subconscious minds which normally gives us the power as well as compulsion to judge whether ideas make sense before fully absorbing them. It can be sidestepped (though only partly) through dreams, hypnosis, metaphor and other hedge-walking arts.

8. The Via Negativa, path of what we can experience and conceive of only through absence and negation.

I can’t quite see what’s in the middle of that web, of course, but it still feels like kind of a big deal.