Dear Santa…Dismantling The Taboo of Desire

Spoiler alert: I am going to briefly talk about character information from The Haunting of Hill House Netflix show and The Winter of the Witch, both of which are fantastic and highly recommended for viewing/reading. I’m not giving away endings, but if you don’t want to know some of the middle material, wait to read this.

I’m getting ready to write my annual letter to Santa, and in the process I’m thinking about what it means to want. I typically include several requests for the world and others who are on my mind as well as general requests for help with intangible goals.

I also generally include a smaller list of requests for material things, but in years past, I’ve felt strangely guilty for asking for material wants.

That guilt is one often reinforced in our culture in its strangely consumeristic yet anti-materialistic attitude toward Christmas. Few people abstain from actually giving gifts, especially to children. And the myth of Santa is built around this concept of a jolly old man who enjoys gift giving.

Yet when children behave like Nell in the Haunting of Hill House, writing to request gifts for other loved ones but not for themselves, they’re praised and held up as virtuous—LOOK HOW SELFLESS AND ALTRUISTIC!!!

I didn’t think to question that mindset until I was reading the advanced reader’s copy of The Winter of the Witch* by Katherine Arden. At one point in the book, Vasya is negotiating with some men about whether she will gather the chyerti (Russian folk creatures) to help them. In the process, Morozko (I can’t sufficiently explain who he is unless you’ve read the series, so read the series!) is expressing concern about whether her own desire for recognition, fame, power, and victory is clouding her, making her susceptible to being manipulated by a specific chyerti who enjoys twisting people to his nefarious ends.

She bares with Morozko’s questioning for a time, but finally snaps, “I’m allowed to want things.”

It wasn’t one of those passages that stood out right away, but it came back to my mind when I started to think about my letter to Santa. I suddenly realized that at some point I had adopted the subtle cultural message that wanting—asking—at Christmas was secretly a sign of deficient character. If I were genuinely a Good PersonTM, I would only want the types of things sung about in “My Grown Up Christmas List.”

It’s not that I don’t want to want those things. I do want them.

But at some point our culture made it seem like they were the only worthy things to want.

But the truth is, like Vasya, I’m allowed to want. Wanting is natural. Wanting something special for myself doesn’t decrease my ability to want good things for others.

I also learned from Vasya that wanting is most likely to cloud my judgment and unconsciously manipulate when I’m unaware of the presence and influence of my own desires. There is a point at which one can pursue one’s own desires to the detriment of others, but that isn’t at the point of simply wanting. Rather it’s when a want is so strong that we’re blinded or willing to hurt others to get it.

Being able to name wants, put them out there, recognize that they’re present—that actually increases the ability to see the role they play and pick the best approach to dealing with their influence and presence.

In The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer talks about the important difference between asking and demanding. For her, asking requires the ability to accept a “no.” When “no” isn’t an acceptable response, it’s a demand, no matter how it’s phrased.

I think that difference is key in being able to destigmatize the concept of requesting our desires, whether in a romantic relationship or in an interaction with a stranger. We’ve all experienced the discomfort of a request that is actually a demand (think Dudley on his birthday, pissed off because he only got 17 presents this year). Demands are distasteful when we’re on the receiving end of them because we feel them clawing at our autonomy.

But I also believe that the inability to accept disappointment is most often what drives someone to turn their requests into demands, whether at Christmas or not.

I know that many struggle with the feeling of obligation at Christmas—spending money, giving gifts because it’s expected–so it makes sense why utter selflessness would come to be viewed as a virtue. It’s almost like a permission to hate the obligation we’re feeling towards others. But I’m afraid that in the process it’s teaching people that to want is a sin. It’s not actually teaching people to handle their desires or disappointments better, just teaching them to be ashamed of having them.

How many of us have found ourselves saying, “Oh I don’t want anything” when asked what we want for Christmas…even though we don’t really mean that answer? How many of us have worked hard to stifle disappointment that someone didn’t pick up on the clues we were dropping because we were afraid of seeming too forward if we specifically said, “I would really like to get something like this as a gift.”?

And to what extent does doing that actually help free us from a burden of obligation around gift-giving?

This year, I really want to reframe my mindset. I want to feel in my bones that it’s okay to want. Not only that, it’s okay to ask for what I want, as long as I recognize that I might not get what I ask for. I can want at the same time as being grateful for what I have. I can think about others while also thinking about myself. I can enjoy giving something special to someone else while also enjoying receiving what others give to me. I can balance pursuing my own desires with trying to make the world a better place. I can balance expressing love through a gift without making my attachment completely about material things. None of these are mutually exclusive.

They’re the very heart of the Christmas spirit.

*Please note: The final book hasn’t been officially published yet, so I’m referencing the ARC version. Most ARCs include a note expressing that quoted or referenced material needs to be checked against the final product since editing can still happen before publication. So please read the published version when it comes out. I will be rereading it myself. 

 

BRAVING TRUST Tarot Spread

Trust—we seem to all struggle with it to an extent. And we all experience a breaking of trust at some point in a relationship. Which is why it’s so important to talk about trust, relational wounds, repairs, and taking informed risks (because let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a risk-free relationship).

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot out there that talks explicitly about how to build and deepen relationships and develop trust. For the most part, we’re left to trial and error, with some of us consistently over-trusting and others struggling to trust at all. Or some who do a combination of both (hello to fellow disorganized attachment people!).

Periodically, when I’m desperately struggling with a relationship and whether it feels safe, I’ll look for a Tarot spread to help me clarify. Unfortunately, I also frequently find that Tarot spreads don’t focus on the issues I’m struggling with either. Usually it’s not about whether the person reciprocates my liking, but whether they’re safe to invest my emotions and time in.

So with all the preamble of “this particular form of self-help doesn’t exist!” of course I’m going to present a solution that I found.

Behold Brene Brown.

In a talk she did for Oprah’s Super Soul Sessions (ugh, I’m sorry, but it’s not as fluffy as it sounds, I promise), Brene breaks down how she has come to view trust and intimacy based on her research and personal experience. She even comes up with a kitschy acronym that hearkens back to her TED Talk to evaluate the health of a budding relationship: BRAVING.

As much as I want to hate the acronym—because acronyms?—I actually find it super useful. So much so that I initially painted a poster of it to hang near my desk so that I could reference it when I needed to.

And then I decided that it needed to be a Tarot spread too!

This is a spread that could be used solo to get clarity on the relationship. I also foresee it being something that two people could do together as a way to prompt discussion about the relationship. The layout is pretty simple, using each letter of BRAVING as a single position in the layout.

So here is the BRAVING TRUST spread.

  1.            3.          5.         7.
    2.           4.          6.          8. (optional)

 

  1. The quality of the boundaries in this relationship.
  2. The nature of the reliability that you can expect as things are.
  3. The accountability that has been present up to now.
  4. The extent to which they guard and respect confidences and privacy.
  5. The values and integrity of the relationship and the people involved.
  6. The quality of non-judgmental mutuality within the relationship dynamic.
  7. The ability for generous assumptions to be present when someone makes a mistake.
  8. Optional: Outcome summary if the relationship continues as it currently is.

Also pay attention to the ways the cards relate to each other. For instance, boundaries aren’t just highlighted in the first position. They’ll often be reflected in other areas as well, especially in positions 4 and 5 as they relate to things that tend to influence boundaries.

More than likely, unless this person is a shit friend, there will be strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. This spread doesn’t tell you what to do with the relationship. What it does do is show you where you may want to work towards improvement or whether you may want to tailor the role that person plays in your life. Of course, some things might be deal-breakers, and this should highlight those areas.

This is not a feel-good spread. Most of the time, we don’t think to evaluate a relationship until we’re feeling tension and confusion around an area of difficulty, so this spread tends to highlight the discomfort within the relationship. However, it’s also important to remember that until the discomfort is revealed, nothing can be done to either distance oneself from the relationship or improve it. Thus, I hope that people will find this a constructive discomfort worth leaning into.

 

Mother’s Day with Archetypes

I’d say Mother’s Day is my least favorite holiday, but even that implies that there is some sort of favor. So more accurately, it’s my most loathed holiday.

For years Mother’s Day came with an endless supply of pain with a special heaping helping of guilt and obligation. I warred with myself as I strove to remain true to my own wounds while dutifully participating in the ritual of thanking my mom…for all the things she didn’t actually do for me very well.

Anyone who has experience with a neglectful, abusive, or difficult mother probably recognizes the impasse inherent in that war, and I often found the best solution to be drunk texting my mother a vague message that I would only vaguely remember sending later.

Well, I’ve managed to do away with the guilt and obligation. Going no contact with my family makes it a lot easier to abstain from the collective lies…but I still feel the pangs of grief that accompany this holiday every year.

The grief over what I did experience, and the grief over what I never had.

And perhaps to an extent, I will always feel that…but I’ve also learned to begin building a relationship with MOTHER-as-archetype in the various forms that it appears to me. Yes, my mom may have sucked at nurturing me, but I still know what “mothering” feels like. I still have a concept of what I long for when I long for a mom (though never my mom).

And it’s that Mother that I seek to connect with increasingly on this day. So this weekend, I compiled a list of my favorite mothers. I would love to hear about yours in the comments.

Lorelei Gilmore
I love Lorelei for the simple reason that she is a great mom who didn’t have a great mom. She’s not a perfect mom by any stretch of the imagination, but she has a strong relationship with Rory and genuinely strives to be the best mom she can be. She knows how to be gentle and when to give a push. When she pushes too far, she knows how to make amends. She embodies mother-as-friend, mother-as-cheerleader, mother-as-comfort, and mother-as-confidant. She also, in my opinion, is a beautiful example of the good-enough-mother.

Molly Weasley
Can there be a more fierce example of mother-love beyond Mrs. Weasley? She is protectress through and through. A little overbearing at times, but a woman whose children never have to doubt that she cares for them with her life. She and her family have struggles (financial and political) and one can see that life isn’t easy, but she never puts her own burdens on her children. She strives to protect them without filling them with a fantasy that the world is safer than it is or encouraging them to ignore the injustices so long as injustice doesn’t touch them. She embodies mother-as-activist and mother-as-protectress.

Queen of Cups
Okay, moving away from movies, the Queen of Cups is probably the only Tarot card that I think of as truly mothering, even though all the queens can be seen as a mother of their particular suit. The Queen of Cups, though, is all about nurturance and emotions. She’s the kind of mother that knows that she can’t save you from the depth of your feelings and won’t stand in the way of you going deep into your pain. In fact, she’ll often encourage you to dive deeply into it…but not alone. She’ll go with you and provide her empathy and love to sustain you on your journey. She is the kind of mother who knows that nurturing and comfort, like spirituality, were never meant to help you bypass the difficult things in life but to give you the strength you need to be able to face them. She embodies mother-as-guide and mother-as-wisdom.

Mother Nature
I don’t think I can talk about archetypal mothers without touching on nature and her myriad of examples of nurturing. She is the great life-sustainer herself but she is also filled with images and symbols of mothering. Whenever I need to feel re-energized and sustained, my surest bet is to connect with nature in some way. Last year, around this time, I witnessed a mama duck trying to cross a raging river with her little ducklings. Even though she could have gotten to the other side quickly on her own, she kept circling back to help her struggling young ones at the rough patches, finally getting to the other shore far down the river from where she probably intended to end up, but having managed to keep every single one of her ducklings safe during the process. For whatever role I need to see, in nature there is an example somewhere. Nature embodies the Great Mother in all her forms.

This is also the time of year when I get to feel my own mothering energy flowing most strongly as I plant my garden and begin tending my green babies towards bloom and fruit. That’s an important connection with the MOTHER-as-archetype because it reminds me that mothering is not just something I seek outside of myself. All of my external symbols ultimately serve to remind me to look within for the mothering energy that I myself possess.

Like Lorelei, I might not have had the best example to draw from, but I have the capacity to re-mother myself, offering to my own inner child that which my biological mother was unable to offer at the time. So as usual, I grieve this Mother’s Day for the mother I didn’t have and the mother I no longer have, but I temper that grief with the comfort, nurturance, protectiveness, and companionship of the MOTHER.

 

 

Solstice Thoughts and Hopes

“Hope whispers, ‘And I will follow till you love me too.’”

This line from Linda Ronstadt’s song “Winter Light” stood out to me yesterday as I was celebrating the winter solstice. It’s such a poignant thought to me…that Hope stalks me, waiting for me to open my heart to it.

It reminds me that hope is something I often have to choose.

I speak of this time of the year as a season for hope and resurrection…the rebirth of the sun! But actually, there’s not a lot of evidence of that initially. Following the longest night of the year, I don’t instantly become aware of the lengthening days.

Most of the stories that I find about the winter solstice involve some sort of tragedy—someone kills the sun or steals/hoards the light or the light goes into mourning or descends into the underworld. In short, the winter comes because of death, loss, and destruction. As with Pandora’s box, Hope is what follows, not what starts the whole process.  Rebirth cannot happen without first a death.

But the solstice somehow becomes a celebration of the return of light in spite of the fact that it’s still dark as fuck out there. And that’s the significance!

The solstice and all the myths associated with it remind me that I can trust that brighter days are coming, even when I don’t see the evidence of it yet, because I know brighter days have always followed the longest nights in the past. So I celebrate not just at the height of summer, but also at the darkest point of the year because I know that the darkness cannot last forever.

In fact, seasonal myths are one of the most beautiful ways that my global ancestors remind me that nothing in life is static. Everything is transitory.

Even chronic pain, when tuned into, has an ebb and flow to it.

Even depression, anger, and sadness change and morph as I grant them much-needed compassionate attention.

What feels permanent and unchanging is made up of constantly shifting moments if I can only allow myself to pay attention to those moments.

Yesterday, I embraced the darkness and rekindled my love affair with Hope.

Happy Solstice, dear readers!

 

Shifting in the Darkness: From Fear to Hope

There’s a beautiful magic that happens shortly after Halloween ends. I’m always a little sad to see November begin, knowing that the spider webs and skeletons will come down, the costumes will be put into storage, and the jack’o’lanterns tossed into the compost.

But then I see the first lit trees in my local park…and I feel a visceral shift in my body. My psyche, satiated on darkness, suddenly craves light and the magic of hope.

The world is still steeped in its own darkness. The days will continue to get shorter for a while. But this is the darkness that beckons for comforting things like blankets and books, hot chocolate, and toasty fires. I’m ready for stories replete with impossibly happy endings.

Soon I’ll be changing my death altar to a winter one, and I know that my ability to revel in the solstice season stems from having allowed myself to step into the darkness of the previous one.  And it reminds me of how intimately connected hope is to darkness.

I’ve mentioned before that hope is one of the funny little positive emotions that doesn’t show up generally when things are going well. It shows up when things are hard–dark, and it’s the positive emotion that helps us pull through the dark times, working towards an uncertain future.

I become ridiculously…childlike, I guess, during the solstice season. I write letters to Santa, leave cookies and milk out, watch all the feel-good movies, freak out over the excitement of wrapped gifts, and desperately hope that there’s at least one toy in my stocking. I love the snow, the lights, and the bustle of the season. I adore the carols and songs.

Yet I know that it’s partly because of how dark I allow myself to get in October that I can really delve into fostering the child-like wonder and belief in December…er, November (let’s face it, Thanksgiving is a toss-away holiday on the way to the next). In my mind, the sugar-sweet hope is only as good as the awareness of how it could be absent.

Otherwise, it’s just denial.

Darkness can be a symbol of grief, death, and fear—all of what I just immersed myself in—but it’s also a symbol of nurturing, gestation, and rest. So in the coming weeks, I will release the finished energy of the summer and look to what I will begin to birth in the spring.

But first, it’s time to snuggle in and get cozy.

Finding My Ancestors at Samhain

This week, I’m shifting gears slightly from the more titillating parts of Halloween to a more somber, spiritual focus (and it’s rare for “somber” and “spiritual” to go together for me at all, so enjoy this anomoly!)

One of the traditional meanings of Samhain has been a time to honor ancestors. Not really knowing much about my ancestors and not being in a position where I can ask my family about our history has made that less appealing in the past. This is probably the first time I have my own dead to remember.

My relationship with my grandmother was complicated after I left the cult and got married; I never felt entirely accepted or loved afterwards. In fact, there was a particularly painful incident in which she opposed my father passing down an heirloom ring to me and my partner, declaring that it “stayed in the family!”

Yet with her death has come the freedom to remember our relationship in a different light. The more recent eight years of frigidity, chastising, and judgment have eroded slightly, allowing the previous 20 years to shine through more.

I can safely re-access the memories of going over to her house as a child to play. I can remember her house being a safe haven in my pre-teens where I could fall head over heals for ‘NSync.

And of course, the mortifying day I got my first period. She was there. She wasn’t the one that explained it to me, perhaps because she was embarrassed, but she arranged for a cousin to come and tell me what was happening to my body since my mother hadn’t adequately prepared me before going out of town. And she taught me how to place a pad (a hard concept for a 10 year old to figure out).

These memories return once the barriers of boundaries and pain are no longer necessary, and in some ways I feel as though our relationship is beginning to heal—that now that she’s dead, we can begin…or resume…something better than what we had in the end.

I don’t necessarily believe that all my biological relatives will be like this in the end—where their death becomes an opportunity for the relationship to heal. There are some, I’m sure, that when they die they will cease to have much tie to me at all because I’ve come to see ancestry as a somewhat separate concept from family history or biological lineage.

I’ve often found myself in strange imaginal relationships with fictional and/or dead people—mostly book characters or writers who became particularly influential in my life. After I read J. R. R. Tolkien’s biography in high school, I spent a good several months having make-believe conversations with him; the same happened with Emily Bronte, Edgar Allan Poe, and more recently Carl Jung.

Characters like Sirius Black, Edmond Dantes, and Morozko (the Russian Jack Frost, whom you can fall in love with in The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden) travel with me as unseen companions. Their stories infuse my life with wisdom and courage—and a little magic.

Often, if I am out on a walk, sitting in a waiting room, or riding in the car, I’ll be off in my own little world with a cast of fanciful spirits that I’ve collected over the years. These are the people I admire and learn from, the people I try to emulate, the ones whose lives have touched me most deeply, whether they lived 200 years ago or never literally lived at all (or only lived literarily).

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Queen Christina was part of my family’s heritage; I can still choose her as an ancestor because of how she inspires me–a rebel woman who rejected the religious and societal mores of the day in pursuit of her own sense of authenticity.

It’s not about what blood flows through my veins. Rarely has biology been the most important part of heritage (maybe when trying to figure out the strange DNA that contributes to my body’s affinity for iron). Rather, it’s about what has contributed to my character and mind.

Thus, the ancestry I choose to honor at this time of year is the connection with those who have helped create me–the ones who gave me the building blocks with which to build myself up from the limitations and challenges of my past.

 

 

It’s Halloween! (So Let’s Talk Scary Movies) #2

On Thursday, I rewatched the first horror movie I had ever seen in a theater–actually the first movie I had ever seen in a theater, period. It was probably one of the most intentionally rebellious things I ever did as a teen. Movie theaters were “evil” places in my cult, and I was forbidden from going to them, even to watch a Disney movie.

Horror movies were also considered evil and demonic for the obvious reason that they often deal with dark topics and the cult didn’t know how to recognize a metaphor.

So, what do I do when I decide to sneak out to a theater for the first time? I go watch Silent Hill, of course.

I remember being scared shitless, but I didn’t remember much about the movie itself. Watching it this time was sort of like watching it for the first time all over again. This one quickly took a place amongst my “movies that are metaphors for the importance of darkness.”

Spoilers in case you haven’t actually seen a movie this old yet.

Silent Hill is a moody, thrilling underworld journey about abuse, revenge, and facing your dark side. Whereas IT focused on facing and conquering fears, this movie is about encountering the dark, painful parts of ourselves.

The story opens with Sharon, an adopted little girl, sleepwalking and dreaming about this place called Silent Hill. It’s implied that these types of episodes have been going on for quite some time, with no response to medication or medical attempts to manage the sleep walking. Her mother discovers that it was a town in the state in which she’d been born that had become a ghost town after coal caught fire in the mines and drove people away. Thus, Rose decides that the only answer is to take her daughter back to this burning town to see if they can figure out what is haunting Sharon.

Rose and Sharon end up separated, and the movie follows Rose’s attempts to find her daughter in a land that has become a nightmare. Her searches eventually lead her to discover a bullied little girl who had been burned by religious fanatics for being a witch. Down in the bowels of the hospital where Alessa was put on life support after her burns, Rose encounters a little girl who looks exactly like Sharon…if Sharon were a demon.

Rose learns that Sharon is “what’s left of Alesssa’s goodness.” Her look-alike is Alessa’s revenge. They had sent Sharon to Rose to be cared for, eventually calling both of them back.

Rose also learns that the religious extremists plan a similar fate for her daughter. Although Alessa’s mother, a member of the cult, had abandoned her when the group had chosen to “purify” her, Rose has an opportunity to save her daughter from the religious extremists by taking in the darkness of the other half and carrying it to the church where the extremists hold their meetings.

It’s a powerful movie with so many characters playing off each other that my Jungian heart goes crazy with the possibilities for analysis.

The movie points out that “to a child, mother is god,” highlighting both the incredible power that mothers hold over their children. Most children, even when their mothers are harming them, still see their mothers through rosy glasses, requiring the child to take on the interpretation of “if good mother is doing these things to me, it must be because I am bad.” It’s nearly impossible to consider, as a young child, that mother might not actually be good. In keeping with this theme, Alessa’s mother is never actually touched by Alessa’s revenge. Even though she’s one of the people that Alessa could easily blame, she doesn’t.

In a similar way, cults like these ones often portray God in a similar light. It takes a lot for a member to question whether the group (which represents God) is doing the right thing, whether life circumstances are indeed deserved. Alessa’s mom wasn’t a good mom because she hated her daughter. She failed Alessa because she herself was under the same spell with the group.

Rose is contrasted with Alessa’s failure. Rose is able to save Sharon the way that Alessa’s mother should have saved Alessa. In some ways, I like to think that Rose is the internal mother that can be developed to heal from religious trauma, but I think the literal interpretation of her being an adoptive mother is also legit.

In turn, Alessa is contrasted by the split girls, identical except that one is good and one is…not exactly evil, but definitely dark. The good child, Sharon, is easy to love. The one that carries Alessa’s pain and anger is harder because she’s scary and unpredictable. But Rose can’t save Sharon without accepting Sharon’s other half.

Alessa’s mom is horrified by the shadow side as she watches her take her revenge on the religious fanatics, but there’s an interesting question even in the violence. Who is the true monster? Yes, the fanatics have been hiding from this dark child, but they also were the ones who created her. They burned Alessa, blind to the evil they themselves perpetuated. We also find out that they’re dead too—that they died in the fire they started, but that they are avoiding awareness of how they have destroyed themselves until Rose forces them to confront the shadow they have created.

Right towards the end, after Rose has managed to cut Sharon down from the stake (technically a ladder more than a stake, but serving the same purpose), she’s holding her and rocking her. Suddenly, the dark duplicate appears and looks into Sharon’s face. The scene cuts away then, and Rose and Sharon wake up later and head home.

It’s unclear from the movie whether the dark one just leaves Sharon alone after she looks at her or if she and Sharon reintegrate with each other in that moment, but my guess is that they integrated because neither were whole on their own. They had been split by the horror of what happened (good metaphor for trauma), and the healing came through Rose offering the corrective experience of a mother who doesn’t abandon her child. Rose needed to love both the shadow and the light in order for the little girl to fully heal.