Tarot: great modular graphic novel, arranged in a spread and read by super wise super cool Sacred Expanse rock-witch Michelle Mae. I’ve been a fan of hers since 1995, when I saw her band the Make-Up on a bill with Fugazi and Slant 6. Michelle has me set intentions. I share with her my questions for the cards — “What should I be open to? How do I make the best of the year ahead?” — and, upon her instruction, also voice them again silently, eyes closed. She pulls the spread: lays it out on a table, explaining that it can be read both linearly and holistically (i.e., taken as a whole). The two of us then proceed to do so as follows. She introduces the cards one by one, naming them, raising them into my field of vision one at a time, without my knowing at any given point until the end how many there are in total. “Some difficult cards,” she reports. “Two of them major arcana.” Michelle helps me make sense of what she admits with a laugh is a bit of a crazy spread. She sends me afterwards a sacred Tibetan meditation practice, urging me to approach it with utmost respect.
I am to visualize my demons sitting across from me.
I am to ask them what they desire, and I am to feed it to them.
By these means, the instructions suggest, we convert our shadow self into an ally. We become whole again, filled with a sense of power, compassion, and love.
Mind blown by the experience of seeing musician Michelle Mae’s group The Make-Up perform at Irving Plaza in the spring of 1995, the Narrator had kept up with Michelle’s bands over the years. Never, though, had he met Michelle in person. Life is like that sometimes, especially for those of us with rich fantasy lives. Rarely do we get to sit down one-on-one to converse with the heroes of our youth.
“But early last September,” notes the Narrator, “I did exactly that.”
Thanks to a most excellent gift from his friends, he had the pleasure of meeting with Michelle and working one-on-one with her on Zoom in her capacity as a tarot reader.
She appeared onscreen sitting at a table in her home in Tucson. “I remember noting in the room behind her,” notes the Narrator, “a handcrafted besom leaned upright against a gray stone hearth.”
“There were some difficult cards in my spread,” confessed the Narrator to his friends in the days that followed. “But Michelle is super wise, super cool. She helped me see what the cards might be trying to teach me.”
I used to think that others I met were wise witches and wizards welcoming me and guiding me, everyone and everything a potential teacher. I was a gnostic initiate on the threshold of a newly re-enchanted cosmos. At some point prior, an event had occurred that changed me, my sense of time and space altered. Pot restored some prior magical conception of reality that I’d been made to hide or repress — even as it also opened me to new modes of experience. I had become fearful in certain ways during my schooling. I’d developed emotional and psychological armor, shutting myself off from awe, desire, love, pain, hope — so as to just endure amid fear of bullying. It happened early in my childhood. A neighbor down the street used to push me. I was bullied and betrayed. This kid was my “best friend” at the time. Yet he pushed me around. He hurt me. That pattern of bullying and abuse continued, repeating itself in middle school and high school and beyond. These events turned me inward. I became like a turtle withdrawn into its shell. Pot got me out of that pattern. It helped me peek my head out of the Cave, like the dude who escapes in Plato’s allegory. I started to think of myself in terms of that character: the freed prisoner, the one whose head pierces the veil. At the end of the high (which can also be an ascent, a flight north), the hero returns again to the cave to free the others. The myth is restaged countless times; it can be transhistorical, like Christ’s harrowing of Hell, or historically specific, like Harriet Tubman’s many journeys to the South. The myth can be told as part of one’s past or one’s future. Millions of people relate to this tale in one or another of its many retellings. What about today? Is this still the narrative with which I fashion myself? I’ve become more discerning than that, have I not? In my encounters with witches and wizards, I study statements and practices. I listen for clues. If it seems like a person or group is trying to trick me or manipulate me, I bounce.
Indigenous people possess a knowledge of the land that settler people lack. Land is part of their being — their idea-systems, their stories, their practices. Much has been taken from them, but they survive, they persist. The way they do so, individually and collectively, is through creation and performance of ceremony. Hoops, star maps, sand paintings: these are architectures used to shelter acts of healing. In Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, we encounter the hogan and the kiva (238). A “kiva” is a room used by Puebloans for rites and political meetings. The room is circular and underground. In Ceremony, a tribal council of old men use a kiva to counteract the influence of the world of the “destroyers” — evil magicians who try to bring on the end of the world through what Silko calls “the witchery.” Capitalism, colonialism, primitive accumulation — all are tools devised by the destroyers. History is understood as the handiwork of an occult, esoteric conspiracy of grand, cosmic, spiritual proportion. All of that may be no more than a “poor person’s cognitive map,” as the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson once said — but it’s one that works, one that allows Tayo and his people to survive. Silko’s ambitions are grand. She weaves into her narrative an awareness of its proximity to Los Alamos and Trinity. When reading, one finds oneself wondering about the meaning of the Manhattan Project as an event in Native American history and cosmology. Native Americans have seen their lands mined, bombed, cut down with US weaponry for centuries. The US tested weapons on native land in the deserts of New Mexico; they then used those weapons against Japanese civilians in 1945. Silko’s protagonist Tayo finds himself caught in that narrative; he and his brother fought the Japanese during their service in the US army during WWII. Tayo returns from the war sick about the loss of his brother Rocky — but sick as well with shame about having left the reservation to serve in the white man’s army.
Pint glasses clank together in a bin behind a bar emptied of patrons on a gray evening — the eve of another workweek. Pubs of this sort are all wood, leather, and tweed. Old-timey, tradition-bound. But comfortable all the same. I’ve been reading up on witches these past few days, Alex Mar’s book Witches in America leading me through a brief history featuring figures like Gerald Gardner and Aleister Crowley and groups like the OTO. I’m of mixed mind regarding this history, curious but wary. The power of these traditions seems undeniable — but what are the principles guiding this power, and toward what end?