The Spiritual Gift Shop; or, Living in Syncretism


Ash Wednesday selfie with Buddha outside Namaste Bookshop, NYC.

I spent four days in New York City last week to take Internal Landscapes movement lessons with one of my artistic mentors, the choreographer John Ollom. John’s work invites one to occupy the “liminal space” where mental preconceptions are relinquished and new insights arise from listening to one’s body. He challenges the compartmentalization of sacred and profane, regarding Eros as the undivided source from which flows not only sex but spirituality, art, and interpersonal intimacy.

My visit coincided with Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent, when we are encouraged to re-evaluate our lives and renounce obstacles in our journey toward God. Lent can be a time when we shame ourselves and further split off the shadow side of our psyche. Or it can be a hopeful movement into the liminal space where we have to trust God more than our ideas about God.

This year, I’m giving up doubting my intuition for Lent.

How do I know when the cadence of a poetic line rings true? What’s that feeling when my novel characters are telling the truth and surprising me, and how’s it different from the gut-level suspicion that we’re bullshitting each other? How does my body, never trained in dance, free-associate from one gesture to the next during an Internal Landscapes lesson, suggesting new images rather than merely illustrating my pre-conceived storyline? How do I know what gender and sexual orientation I am?

I can’t dissect these intuitive processes the way I can pick apart a theological argument. But I can’t retrain my traumatized nervous system through political analysis alone. My head’s gone as far as it can go. Mistrust, fear, and alienation can only be overcome through openness to receiving the life force wherever it manifests.

My intuition knows that quickening feeling when a new line of inquiry makes me feel vital, curious, clear-headed, creative, and pleasurable. That’s the thread I follow through the labyrinth in my creative writing. Now I’m taking baby steps, with some guilt and anxiety, toward the same non-dogmatic attitude in my religious life.

Religion was where my inner child sought order, stability, clear moral boundaries, and the public accountability created by community norms and rationally defensible creeds. Traditional Christianity appealed to and reinforced my dualistic thinking: faith/superstition, good spirits/evil spirits, magical mystical sacraments/New Age hippie make-believe. At my most conservative, I was afraid to open a box of Women’s Bodies Women’s Wisdom Healing Cards that I received as a gift, because didn’t the Bible forbid divination?

One of the spiritual abuse survivor blogs I follow, Caleigh Royer’s Profligate Truth, this year has chronicled her journey away from Christianity and her process of healing from child abuse while raising her baby son. We have a lot in common. In her most recent post, she disclosed her current intuitive attraction to Tarot. I heard that little “ping” inside myself that tells me when I’m onto a good idea in my writing. I remembered my fascination with Tarot in college before I converted to Christianity. The mysterious symbols and fairy-tale archetypes on the cards had inspired me to write an epic poem based on random (?) cards I drew from my Aquarian deck. (One was Temperance, below.)

My mind instantly threw up a cloud of objections. “You have no reason to believe this is ‘true’. Aren’t you just looking desperately for patterns in random events? That’s not a grown-up thing to do! How can you take seriously a religion without a complex philosophical foundation? Or a coffee hour?”

Look, I don’t know any of that, either. I just feel drawn to Tarot right now as a source of resonant images to spark my creativity and know myself better. As this xoJane article, “Tarot Reading for Skeptics, Cynics, Nonbelievers and Side-eyers”, explains:

Why use tarot cards?

Personally, I use them for focus and meditation. I don’t tell the future, I don’t see other people’s secrets, and I don’t think I’m communicating with the divine. (It’s cool if you do, though — I ain’t judging.) I find the archetypes and stories in tarot symbolism to be resonant and meaningful for understanding myself and my life. I do self-directed readings to give myself points to think about, or to reframe my perspective. For me it’s really just a self-help practice with pretty props.

Do you “believe” in tarot as a supernatural/occult/magic thing?

Personally, no. And in general I believe any sort of faith associated with tarot use is fully optional. People will probably argue with me on this point — as I would have done when I considered tarot reading a spiritual activity — but no, you can be a flat-out atheist and still get use out of tarot cards, if you want.

Rational (if not fully scientific) efforts at explaining the efficacy of tarot for some folks often use what Carl Jung — founder of analytical psychology — termed the “collective unconscious.” Jung believed that this was a separate psychological aspect from our personal unconscious, and was not dictated by our individual experience but by the breadth of human existence, taking shape as our shared ability to recognize a series of basic universal forms that he called archetypes.

Examples of archetypes are pretty familiar to human storytelling, and include our ideas of the hero, the mother, the self, the wise old person, the trickster, and so on — most of these broad archetypes can be found in myths and folklore throughout time and across diverse cultures. Thus, Jung argued that this collective unconscious passes from one generation to the next as an inherited understanding shared by all humans.

Tarot cards — especially those who take their symbolism from the Rider-Waite standard — often employ these so-called universal archetypes. Even if you think Jung is full of shit, much of the symbolism used, especially in more modern decks, comes from human experiences many of us can relate to on some level — heartbreak, joy, falling in love, achieving a goal, a fleeting moment of feeling in tune with the world around us — and so with practice they will speak to you in their own ways.

On Ash Wednesday, on my way to my Internal Landscapes lesson, I passed the Church of the Holy Innocents to check on service times. I sometimes attended Mass there in 2000-02 when I worked in an office nearby and needed a mid-week spiritual recharge. It’s everything a small Catholic church in Manhattan should be: shadowy, smoky, crammed with aging plaster statues and paintings of beautiful agonized saints. In true on-the-go New York fashion, they were offering round-the-clock imposition of ashes from 7 AM-7 PM in the basement chapel. Next to the prayer station was a makeshift gift shop with elderly ladies selling saints’ cards, rosaries, beaded bracelets with saints’ pictures, and devotional booklets.

I used to have a childlike faith in such items. I attributed protection to the Jesus lucky charm, rather than the relationship with God that it represented. And by “used to” I mean until 2009 or thereabouts, when traumatic aspects of the adoption process made me realize I was a child abuse survivor. I became cynical and bitter about looking for rescuers outside myself. I wanted to stop clinging to the illusion of control over external circumstances, and instead grow stronger by loving myself and seeing my situation clearly. Rituals and saints seemed like painful reminders of a helpless child’s imaginary friends.

I’m just beginning a new stage of my healing journey, focusing on body-mind integration and openness to God’s presence. With that orientation, and with John Ollom’s insights about the undivided energy of Eros, my view of religious tchotchkes shifted once more.

After my movement lesson on Wednesday, I took the subway down to Namaste Bookshop to buy a Tarot deck as a souvenir of my New York spiritual pilgrimage. The colorful, welcoming store is packed with books and trinkets reflecting just about every New Age, Eastern, and indigenous tradition you can imagine: Goddess cards, angel cards, wolf spirit totems, Ganesh statues, charm bracelet Buddha heads… Since New Yorkers are never too spiritual to call a lawyer, the cash register also sports this lovely disclaimer about the store’s fortune-telling services:

Namaste disclaimer

The religious smorgasbord before me brought out my cynical side at first. When all traditions are presented as equally valid and on sale for $14.99, doesn’t that encourage shallowness, cultural appropriation, or a superstitious dependence on any barely-understood totem that gives you a good feeling that day?

But that objection fell away when I understood that the whole world is already sacred, already “charged with the grandeur of God” that shines out from every material object, waiting for us to notice it. The Spirit is not something separate from daily life, which we must bring in by choosing the right set of rosary beads or tarot cards. Any of these objects could work as a point of connection to the life force, just as any of them could become an idol if used in the wrong frame of mind.

I’m not saying “all religions are the same”. Beliefs have consequences: some are conducive to justice and love, others hurtful and misleading. Symbols, on the other hand, exceed the boundaries of any single interpretation. Jesus has been claimed for many contradictory agendas. Does the Cross represent God’s solidarity with abuse survivors, or does it reinforce abuse by romanticizing the suffering of innocents? Does the Incarnation represent the complete reconciliation of human and divine, or does it imply that human beings other than Jesus lack the divine spark? My heart’s attraction to the Cross transcends arguments.

Don’t ask me where I’m going, but I’m having a good time.

Fear of the Daemon: Art, Faith, and Resistance to Inspiration

As my religious priorities shift, I’ve tentatively become more open to New Age concepts and practices that I used to fear were “anti-Christian”. One of my artistic mentors is someone who rejected his homophobic church upbringing and found body-soul integration through Wiccan and pagan beliefs. I’m not drawn to this path at the moment, but I crave a similar release from the eros-repression and psychological splitting that seem inherent in Biblical tradition. The anxiety and hypervigilance of my PTSD have become so tedious, and my impaired connection to Spirit is such a source of grief, that I’m willing to try anything safe and legal. Hypnosis, past-life regression, spirit guides, medical trials of magic mushrooms?

Yes, Cartman, but I’ll take it.

So that’s how I found myself surfing paranormal psychologist Dr. Charles T. Tart’s website about psychic powers. I followed a link from Trauma Information Pages, a useful site collecting scientific papers about the biology of PTSD and effective interventions.

I was drawn to an article called “Psychics’ Fears of Psychic Powers” because, well, fear is my thing. It’s incredibly hard for me to open up to the divine, however I conceptualize it, due to years of engulfment by an abusive parent. I found this article enlightening and reassuring, because the people interviewed did not necessarily have a trauma history, but still contended with all the same sources of resistance. I saw great similarities, not only to my faith struggle, but to the artist’s fear of inspiration. In all these scenarios, we hesitate before opening to unknown and potentially disruptive energies, yet long for the deeper truth that can only be accessed through them.

Some of the fears mentioned in the study:

“Who knows what you might be opening up to? It’s a loss of ego.”

“Once I get out there, will I be able to return?”

“In doing a reading you’re giving someone a large amount of power to validate or invalidate you. That’s scary!”

“Fear that if you do get through to [the] other side you will be unalterably changed.”

“…When you start to get into other realities, to make more profound changes in yourself, then what validates your reality? You can’t even trust the support of the people you’re with, that you love, because what differentiates that from a cult? You’re far from the realities of your culture! What feedback can you believe?”

“You may get so ‘high’ from psychic spaces that when you go out into the ordinary world you aren’t discriminating, you’re too accepting, and that can get you into trouble.”

“A fear that you won’t be able to express your experience.”

“A fear that you will be able to express it, but it won’t make sense to anybody.”

Those last two quotes particularly sound like the script that runs in my head when I’m writing fiction. (Not poetry, for some reason; maybe I don’t write my poems for anyone but myself, so I don’t care if they’re understood?) Overall, this paper helped normalize “psi” and other spiritual explorations for me. They’re part of the same psychological and energetic reality as creating art, which is something I have no choice but to do. So I guess my decision has been made.

Two Poems from Ellaraine Lockie’s “Where the Meadowlark Sings”

Widely published author Ellaraine Lockie is known for narrative poems that capture the unique character of a place and its people. In her eleventh chapbook, Where the Meadowlark Sings (Encircle Publications, 2015), she returns to her native Montana to honor the land that her parents and grandparents farmed. This prizewinning collection includes humorous character sketches, elegies for towns hollowed out by economic collapse, and love songs to the landscape that revives her spirit. In “After Montana”, a poem near the book’s end, she begins, “The guys in the California coffee shop/say I look like I’ve been with a new lover,” which prompts a tour de force of erotic descriptions of her communion with the prairie:

…I could tell them how annual equals cutting-edge new
When wind licks with different tongues each time
Runs a reborn hand over your hills and gullies
And a bee with black lingerie wings humps the blossom
of a Canadian thistle…

Lockie reveres but doesn’t sentimentalize her local history. In “Facing Family Tradition” she recalls her family’s racist slang for Brazil nuts, and suggests that although it was due to ignorance and inexperience rather than malice, it’s still a legacy she has to atone for. Several poems explore the isolation and hardship faced by prairie women, as well as their resourcefulness. She kindly shares two of these poems below.

Abandoned Garden

Lying on the long side of time
a partially buried Meissen vase
Crackled like paper crunched in the fist of an accident
Its mouth growing sweet peas and pansies
A pioneer woman’s attempt to civilize an untamed land
As though she were out gathering a bouquet
for a quilting bee in her homestead house
when some tragedy befell her

The house now as much a ghost as she
Yet she lingers in these immigrant flowers
that survive encroachment from native clover
blue flax, sage and morning glory
Butterflies that pollinate from one to the other
arbitrating the struggle
Like the diplomacy of a woman
caught between a hardcore German husband
and the America around them
Between their children and the razor strop
that hung on a toolshed door

She lives in the flames of poppies she planted
that have burned through a century
of hailed-out crops, drought and grasshoppers
Today the prairie breeze breathes the same scent
as her heirloom handkerchiefs
The sweet violet toilet water sacheted in drawers
and splashed on after a well water wash

She lives in the pressed purple yellow
pansies that look out from
a grandmother’s diary and recipe books
Butterflies, as they take flight
in the draft of turning pages

Winner of the Women’s National Book Association Poetry Competition, 2013

Seasons of Extreme

The husband tells her
she can buy the coat when an 8 fits
But her 14 can’t do the math
fast enough for this fashion season
She dreams of the hood’s faux fur trim
haloing the Very Berry lips
she wears to her women’s book club
When he thinks she’s visiting a rest home

He prefers the company of his old pickup truck anyway
Craves that control with the flex of one foot
But his hands, how they turn tender
at the touch of steering wheel
Unlike high octane’s stranglehold on the environment
which he considers liberal bullshit
Believes what his bar buddy said in the Mint
That cosmic rays from the stars cause global warming

He’s as out of touch as the antique tools he collects
Even the apple tree is budding in January
The cedar waxwings already mating
And the mountain bears haven’t yet hibernated
They all know without TV, newspapers
or computers that things are drying out
heating up, bubbling over

There could be Missouri River floods
County water rationing by summer
A winter wheat fire any day now
An ice storm in the bedroom

Winner of Chicagoland Social Conscience Award, 2013