Time Queerly Tangled (pt 1)
Posted by <Jady> on 2021-06-21
Late St. Paddy's Day night, I was chatting on a Discord voice channel with some internet friends, talking about the astrological idea of the Saturn return. One of them told me, "Your Saturn return is when you have to choose whether to be an NPC or not." Some time more recently, I relayed this to a friend asking me my intentions for my thirtieth birthday. He asked me what it would be: NPC or not? I told him I don't think I can choose NPC at this point. In the last few years, I’ve learned to embrace vulnerability as necessary for survival. These same lessons, and what brought me to that point, have helped me develop a perspective that uses weird time, multiple universes, and compassion to broaden the working space of social and political change.
In the spring of 2018, my brother invited my parents and me to join him Independence Day weekend in Virginia on his Naval aircraft carrier with other sailors' families from around the country. The day would include expositions of their missiles and aircraft, a short cruise a few dozen miles off shore, and an airshow. I hadn't seen my brother in years, and I had recently decided I wanted to build a closer relationship with him. I agreed, not knowing how I would handle this giant trigger made of many smaller triggers, but resolute to figure it out by July. My parents made plans for a 10-day road trip from Texas to Virginia and back, picking me up on the way. I had been living three years in New Orleans, a city moderately safe for (white) trans people such as myself, building my confidence and sense of safety moving in the world in a way that was comfortable and joyous for me. With the invitation, I was being asked to leave my city bubble. Everything about this trip would be outside of my comfort zone: I would leave the bubble, be in a car with my parents for days, drive through nearly every state in the South (twice), and spend a day on a massive military vessel, surrounded by sailors and their ardently supportive and patriotic families.
I had three options: I could go back on my acceptance of the invitation and stay in my bubble, giving up both the opportunity to deepen my sibling relationship and the opportunity to grow; I could work out ways to cover my difference, avoid triggers, lower the possibility for harassment, essentially disassociate from either myself or the trip (so also give up the growth opportunity). Or, I could do exactly what I had been doing, but outside the bubble: moving through any space I would be taken through, any context with any persons, to just submit. Submission was a big part of the lessons I had been learning about life, in accepting what is outside of my control, in finding beauty and the kernel of choice within submission. Laying out my options, I saw in the third a unique opportunity for growth. I chose this, seeing this plan as the chance to enter a Ulysses pact, a binding by oneself in the present upon the future self.
In the 12th book of the Odyssey, Ulysses and his men depart Aiaíā, the home of Circe, to continue their journey home to Ithaca. Circe warns them about the Sirens, beautiful creatures with a song so seductive that seamen would jump overboard to their deaths in a futile attempt to join them. Ulysses instructs his men to plug their ears with wax to deafen the song so they can sail unharmed. However, he wants to hear the song, ever the hubristic adventurer, so he instructs his men to tie him to the mast and leave him there until they pass the Sirens, and to swear to leave him there despite any protestations he would give to let him join the Sirens in the sea. Amazingly, considering the foolishness Ulysses got up to time and time again, the plan works.
I learned about the Ulysses pact around 2012, in the middle of my undergraduate education. At the time, I had my nose deep in queer theory, particularly in Jack Halberstam's In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005) and Elizabeth Freeman's Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010). These works reject linear, "straight" time and instead mess with time in creative ways, even erotic ways. The pact fascinated me, how it folded two nonadjacent points in time into contact with one another. The creator of the pact engages in self-bondage across time. I wanted to be bound. I'm pretty sure I wanted Elizabeth Freeman to tie me and time in a knot. However, I struggled to find a way to experiment with the Ulysses pact myself, and I put it aside. In 2018, faced with this trip to Virginia, I had found the chance to experiment with the pact. At that point I may have wanted to call Elizabeth Freeman on the phone (I do not have her phone number).
Seeking structure, support, answers
I entered undergrad 12 years ago as an incredibly naive, sheltered person, knowing I needed to broaden my horizons, not knowing how broad I needed to go, to find answers to questions that had grown since I came out in my small town high school: who am I, this gay person? What is my place in the world? What is the world? What is out there in the gay bubble and beyond the gay bubble? What do I not know? How do I survive? How do I stay safe? How do I find happiness? What is love? How do I enjoy sex? How do I respect and love myself? (I found answers to some of these, but certainly not most. Several have in the place of the answer a smiling stare that says, you'll never know, relax.)
My hometown, a semi-rural place in central Texas, was in some ways a time capsule of the 1950s, or judging by the hairstyles, the 1980s if multiculturalism never happened. Trends and technologies always took several years to reach our town, like we were living behind the rest of the world. Norms of gender and sex corresponded with this living in the past. At home, I was raised devoutly Catholic; my mom was the church organist, and my dad was somewhat of an expert on Catholic doctrine, even becoming the staff religion teacher at my high school. They put me through Catholic school from 4 years to 18 years old, not an easy feat for our class position. I attended Mass twice a week; once during the week with my school, and once with my family on the weekend. This was the only tradition I knew; my whole world was structured around its supremacy, its unassailable rightness—one could question, but one must always return. Therefore, I found a great deal of meaning in the tradition, finding refuge in the love of the Virgin Mary, seeking guidance in the life of Jesus Christ, praying for the presence of the Holy Spirit in my thoughts and actions. I read the Bible a lot, delving deeper into it when the outside world would flex its cruelty on me. I also got a big dose of the guilt complexes that are common to hear about from people raised Catholic.
When I came out as gay, the structure I had found a home in turned into a hostile place, where I felt I needed to hide in myself to occupy that space. One of my closest friends, devoutly Catholic, turned on me. I became a problem for discussion by the faculty of my high school, a pinpoint draw of silent scorn from the priest associated with the institution. I became disenchanted pretty quickly, you might imagine, looking elsewhere for the structure, love, and answers I had found in the faith. I flipped to what I saw as the opposite of my Catholic faith: witchcraft and fortune telling. These places didn't judge me, and promised never to do so. The structure of the tarot was especially helpful; it was a text I could study like the bible, that I could cross reference, a structure like scaffolding. Scaffolding is useful because it's a way to build meaning, to climb into new areas of learning and ideas. After not a long time, witchcraft fell by the wayside because it wasn't structured enough. Palmistry as well faded in importance for the same reason.
I also sought acceptance and learning for myself as a young queer person in places that ended up being unsafe for me. I found acceptance on deviantART, where I shared my photography and angsty teen poetry.
I quickly found, or was found by, older gay men on the platform who were affirming to me, who coached me in photography and taught me about being proud as a gay person. I was also being groomed by them. I learned that I could get positive feedback from them by using my body. I started to learn that I was beautiful, but I learned it in a context of exploitation—that was the early positive feedback I got as a gay person. I ended up being, of course, taken advantage of by these various people, who were connected to one another, and essentially cyber trafficked between them, manipulated by them as a group.
There are these multiple truths about the situation. These men were taking advantage of me. They were also my first queer mentors. This was a source of affirmation and encouragement of my queerness. I learned (some) about loving and appreciating myself from them. Conveniently for them, I didn't learn about loving myself enough to say no. I never learned the word "boundaries." In fact, I didn't learn about boundaries until my mid-20s because I didn't even know I had that gap in my knowledge.
I fell in love, or so I thought, with one of these people, a man in Toronto. There were things that squicked me out about him, but he spoke to me kindly. He wanted to drive down to see me, to take me on a camping trip (!); I told him I wanted that too, even though I was scared. I started to brainstorm how to lie to my parents so I could leave with him. More questions came up in my mind about him, though. I knew something was wrong, but I felt like I had no one to ask for advice. I didn't want to feel judged. I turned to, in that time, my tarot deck, this other structure and source of meaning and affirmation, to investigate my feelings. I laid out spread after spread, trying to figure out what to do. The King of Swords came up over and over, which I took as a sign for him. In the last spread I did, I saw two paths, one with the King of Swords and chaos, and one without the King of Swords, but with growth. The answer felt true. I ended our connection, tearfully.
I eventually put together that the answers I was getting from the tarot, I was getting from myself—a lesson in self esteem and in trusting myself. At a certain point the cards went away. I felt I had found enough answers for the kind of questions I thought they could answer. I graduated from high school and moved to the big city next door for college, where my world expanded—a lot. Life picked up speed, and bigger questions took prominence.
My first year of college, I lived in a residence hall of artists and debaters, as intended by the founder of the scholarships we received. The debaters and artists opened up my mind first, before any material from classes or engagement with student organizations did. Our hall was very social, and while the artists mostly hung around each other, I liked to spend time in the artists' and debaters' rooms alike, catching up on my arts education on two fronts: practice and theory. I learned about a debate technique called a critique: when an opponent delivers an argument based on facts, research, policy, but does it in a way that's objectionable, then you can make an argument critiquing the way they make their argument without addressing their argument directly—and they can critique your critique, if they dare. I learned about all kinds of critiques, but I especially loved learning the ones based on feminist theory and queer theory, phrases that meant nothing to me before then.
"Theory, what is that?"
Until I got to college, there was no philosophy but theology, or rather philosophy and theology were one, and there was one correct theology. When I was taught the history of Western philosophy, the lesson was that the non-Catholic philosophers were intelligent people, but heathens, and that Catholic theology was the only way to think about the world outside of material facts dealt with by physics, chemistry, and biology. We were often taught that if Aristotle and Plato had only known Jesus Christ, they would have had better opinions.
It was from the debaters that I first learned of the existence of Judith Butler—and how lucky was I that, while I was deprived of this prior to that point, I would learn Butler so early in the process of my rapid world expansion? My time with the artists and debaters alike helped me establish a basis of questioning everything, of learning deeply about everything, withholding commitment to any idea, floating or jumping while building knowledge, and feeling the joy of this process. I hold gratitude for that today, because my friends were basically showing me the first steps of how to not be an NPC. I couldn't yet use the most sophisticated tools for following their guidance, but I did have Wikipedia, and oh did I use it. That was where I got my first taste of the breadth of queer theory and gender theory, hopping around anachronistically at times, carefully tracing lineages at others. I wanted to dig into the primary sources, but I also had a lot of other things going on, like classes and homework, so I used my conversations with them and my Wikipedia dives to get the lay of the land so that I could pick the right entry point into the primary texts.
I learned there was a class I could take—a queer studies class! I could earn college credit for gay stuff! In Sociology of Sex Roles, I could earn credit for reading about Judith Butler and Kimberlé Crenshaw! I didn't know any of this existed. In that sociology class, I learned about trans people in depth for the first time, in this structured way of, "there's MTF and FTM, gender and sexuality are separate axes," etc. We didn't handle as much theory as I thought we would: whereas in my Wikipedia dives I learned how complicated and unresolved the questions in queer theory and feminist theory were, I was instead thrust into this highly structured learning about LGBTQ, the emerging ally training paradigm of the early 2010s as it was inherited from earlier paradigms.
A tension started to emerge for me between the indeterminacy in queer theory (and such indeterminacy in the conversations I had with non-academic queer people about how they experienced their lives) and the rubrics and structures from those first queer studies and sociology classes I took—"gender and sex and sexuality are all completely separate and independent from one another"—yet never finding sharp distinctions between those things in conversation with real people. When I spoke with queer and trans people outside of academia, I heard more how things blend together, how sexuality is influenced by gender experience, how the category words are more stifling than liberating.
That first year of college, I felt vulnerable being in transition between the two worlds of my small town and the city. For my final project in beginning drawing, I created a large charcoal drawing of a snail moving from one shell to another—never mind that snails don't do this in real life, as they are fused to their shells—the old one your usual snail shell, the new one covered in circuits, representing not just my life in the city, but the alien, uncanny world that was only just starting to come into view—unknown unknowns. I had started to investigate some of the questions I had at first—what is my place in the world? how do I survive?—but instead of answers, I found more questions. Equipped with the free-floating curiosity I learned from the debaters and artists, I understood not to trust at face value everything I learned, but I still wanted to find a home, an identity rooted in structure, a stable place to practice pride. Inevitably, some of this structure began to feel natural.
The Genderbread Person and its consequences have been a disaster for queer people
The Genderbread Person, this famous or infamous diagram made by (and capitalized upon by) a cis straight man as a big favor to LGBT people to show how great of an ally he was, laid out the axes of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, assigning each axis a place on a diagram of a gingerbread person cookie. Sex was a transgender symbol between the legs of the cookie; attraction was the heart; gender identity was a rainbow-colored brain, and expression was a dotted line around the periphery of the cookie.
The diagram had a few revisions over the years in response to changing liberal LGBTQ discourse. An early version had one axis for each variable with an arrow on each end, such as gender identity being a spectrum from woman at the left end to man at the right end, with genderqueer in the middle. Version two (c. 2014) had two axes per variable, with a zero point and an arrow going to the right. For example, gender identity had a "woman-ness" axis and a "man-ness" axis, allowing the chart user to plot someone as identifying strongly or weakly as both, or differently for each axis. The chart included example axis configurations in miniature chart reproductions, notably with "two-spirit" shown as two matching points toward the zero point of the gender identity axes—a colonial gesture of collapsing indigenous histories and cultures for easy digestion, a microcosm of the kind of flattening happening in the larger discourse. Version four, from 2017, removed the example chart positions, split attraction into sexual and romantic attraction, and included another interesting flattening of difference that had started to develop in earlier versions: the two axes each in romantic and sexual attraction are labeled "women and/or feminine and/or female people" and "men and/or masculine and/or male people." This revision to show difference between these terms nevertheless puts them on the same axes, which would have a person attracted to women regardless of sex in the same chart position as someone exclusively attracted to people assigned female at birth. The revisions to this chart still flatten the diversity of experiences with gender and sex, just under more apparently atomistic terms over time.
In order to sustain itself, capitalism needs to devour new and changing forms of social relations, incorporating them into consumerism and convincing people they have a place of respect in the system. This is part of its staying relevant, appearing to change with the times while maintaining the same foundation of exploitation. However, this devouring requires easily digestible material; there must be simplification in the definition of these relations. The Genderbread Person and the popular LGBTQ discourse at the time were compatible with these needs, creating a floating structure of definitions over actual queer life with axes, grids, buckets to place people, not all that much pinning it to reality. In the way the terms changed over time, the structure was treated as stable at its foundation (experience along axes, the centrality of identity), just needing additions of new terms, new buckets for people to feel at home.
At the end of my first year of college, I got involved in LGBTQ political organizing of the sort that Srnicek and Williams call "folk politics" in Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015). The authors define this as politics driven by intuitive, but often outdated, understandings of power. The two groups I organized with drew most of their inspiration from ACT UP, using modified training materials from that organization to organize campaigns of escalating pressure and to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience. We also heavily relied on Gene Sharp's work (1973), and Bill Moyers' (no, another Moyers) Movement Action Plan, or MAP (2001). However, because these methods were rooted in the past, we weren't agile enough to act appropriately within the changed landscape of power, or to even understand the landscape. Although we had theory, the theory was ahistorical in that it did not recognize that our historical moment was vastly different from those from which we learned. Nevertheless, I'm still proud of what we did with what we had at the time. We had specific policy goals instead of the vague withdrawals typical to folk politics, and we did have strategy—it was just out of step with the changed landscape of power.
Many of us held anticapitalist beliefs, but we didn't have a firm foundation in Marxist theory. We were told by the nonprofit industrial complex that nondiscrimination protections would give us the material change we needed to have happier, more fulfilling lives. This didn't correspond to what I read in queer theory and Marxist feminist theory about class struggle, about rejecting conformity and questioning inclusion, but it seemed like there was no alternative. Most of my collaborators saw the problems in this as well, but we saw these fights as a necessary first step to more change. Being on the defense so often in Texas, it felt radical just to have a proactive agenda.
The definitions were also how we could talk to straight cis people about us and make them understand us—except they didn't understand us; we gave them these regimented things that ended up not matching how queer reality works, and they would turn it back around on us and say, "well what you're showing me doesn't fit into the schema you gave me, therefore I'm not going to understand you."
Although I was learning how unstable these categories were in queer theory, the structure was enticing for its purported utility. We were told by the establishment that if we could just make neater definitions for ourselves, we could be included in the system, protected from the biases of individuals—then those protections would inevitably come with religious carve-outs, delays, or would just not happen. In the past four or five years, there has been a proliferation of memes along the lines of being asked one's pronouns before being tased, or other darkly humorous takes on identity politics as an interface for state power. I appreciate this more vocally critical look at the liberalization of queerness.
From blackpill to utopia
Late in my senior year of college, my trust in our political projects slowly declined, at the height of a battle for nondiscrimination protection in limited areas at the city level. I withdrew from my activist organizations and stopped facilitating ally trainings. I was finally in the thick of primary sources of queer theory—having added a sociology major to take courses in the queer/gender arena—and felt drawn to the work by Leo Bersani in the 1980s and Lee Edelman's work in the 2000s, both characterized as "antisocial" (Caserio et al. 2006). In No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004), Edelman's central argument is that the future is the realm of the symbolic Child through the mechanism of reproductive futurism, summed up (in my head) by the line from The Simpson's, "Will somebody please think of the children?" It's also the whole "children are our future" deal, that any political imagining about the future is tied to heterosexual reproduction, and that the future itself is a (heterosexual) reproduction. Edelman argued to withdraw from this rhetorical trap, insisting on the importance of the here and now, and to question collectivity. You can probably guess that this was pretty blackpilling to read, to forget the future, but I loved it. It fed my rage, the betrayal I felt by the straight world and the ally-training part of the gay world. Edelman said we have needs now; the future doesn't exist. It fed my urgency. Thankfully, I tempered this in an independent study with my sociology advisor, a queer academic dealing in some ways with the same contradictions. They brought me through a lineage of primary sources, showing me again the breadth of queer theory I had forgotten in the hole of No Future. When I was ready to be unblackpilled, I found the treasure that is Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity by José Esteban Muñoz (2009).
In this book, Muñoz responds to Edelman's antisocial thesis, his insistence on the now, by saying that queerness is not here and not now, but rather a horizon of possibility, a "then and there" that challenges us to reject the shortcomings of the present, the stagnation of contemporary politics. He argues that queer creative expressions show sketches of utopia, birthed from their historical context, and that by delving into the past, from grand expression to quotidian, we can find access to the utopia we need—historicized, based on possibility rather than perfection. Muñoz himself uses the past to critique the present and open new possibilities that can't be created from straight time. In this way, his book resonates with the final words of Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher: "The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again" (2009, 80-81).
Queer theory is often hard to apply to everyday life. With Cruising Utopia, I felt the warmth and the promise of the "forward-dawning futurity," but I needed a way to keep it alive for myself. Getting into readings on time travel and higher dimensions, I thought more about utopias existing out there in parallel universes, that openings could emerge between here and there, that I could see slivers of utopia peeking through in the quotidian. This helped me steer clear of nihilism in the years of precarity after undergrad, working part-time at a contemporary art museum and freelancing for artists. I started to appreciate small things, not as escapism but to fuel my imagination for utopia, like Muñoz prescribed, and to treasure these glances through dimensions as resistant to capture by the state.
Continual open-ended becoming
Figuring out life as a trans person has had its difficulties, trying to avoid the intrusions and captures of neoliberal identity politics, especially as it took form in the early 2010s. Transgender existence was defined by identity, and still is in the neoliberal order, as codified in nondiscrimination laws and in corporate diversity and inclusion policies. A transgender person was someone who identified as a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth. This definition was useful for neoliberal categorization because it creates a binary, identifies as this or does not identify as this. I didn't consider myself trans at that time for that reason—the term wasn't based on existence and experience and relation, but identity. I attended trans community meetings, organized for trans rights, traveled to transgender conferences. But I did not identify.
Learning about interpellation in Althusser, Badiou, and Butler, I asked myself how I felt called or interpelled, when did I feel the hook of interpellation, by what terms? I knew that the moment of interpellation constituted subjectification and state capture, yet interpellation allows the subject to exchange subjectification for an identity, this precious thing that in the 21st century feels like the only thing we have of our own. I attended a men's conference on my college campus (a disaster to describe another time), and although I used the term of "man" to claim legitimacy in the conversations, I realized I didn't feel called by that term; I felt like it went past me and put its hook in someone else. Although interpellation also describes the moment of internalizing ideology, I was told I needed identity—again, the curse of T.I.N.A. (There Is No Alternative). By investigating how I felt interpelled, in order to find identity, I further internalized the dominant ideology, embedding myself more deeply in a harmful framework.
As I put together that indeed, I was experiencing life not as a man, but something else, I began searching for this identity I was instructed to discover. I found something, something difficult to describe, but I found a feeling, and said, aha! I've found my gender identity. I latched onto it, making myself more easily interpelled, incorporated, subjectified.
For years I held onto that object I had found in my psyche, putting it mostly behind the scenes while I figured out survival in precarious jobs as a liberal arts graduate. I moved to New Orleans, came out as nonbinary, attended trans support group meetings, and decided to work on my identity and presentation, the twin defining aspects of transness as it was handed to me. As I did this over time, "identity" held less sway over my understanding of myself, and the psychic object I had identified before became more and more foreign to me. It was familiar as part of my past, but not in my present. I started to let go of the need to hold onto a solid identity, and focused more on living in a flow, experiencing the becoming of myself.
While identity has been a central rallying point in mainstream political discourse around trans people, trans scholars have been working more expansive theories of trans existence. Some of this work builds on the basis of affect theory and new materialism, which helps maintain a materialist analysis while letting go of normative, linear time, and taking into account how abstract concepts are part of the material world because they are processed, modified, and expressed using our bodies as they are enmeshed with other bodies. In affect theory, the distinction between the past, present, and future is not so important as the way forces flow between them. Affect "happens" prior to consciousness: cognitive processing takes this messy, nonlinear jumble of affect and discards most of the input in order to create a coherent picture of what happened—and does so by looking backward in time. One area of trans theory, especially shown in the works of Crawford (2008), Hayward (2008, 2010), and Stryker (2008), expands the idea of one's embodiment to include more of what we might call context, like space, time, and social circumstances. With the borders of the body expanded, smudged, or dissolved, transition is less of a linear process and more of a continual open-ended becoming (Sundén 2015, simpkins 2017).
Far from an arcane theory by nerds, this bears out in conversation with trans people. This comes up in trans support group meetings with sayings like "transition isn't about a destination," "transition is never over; life is one big transition." These ideas are worked beautifully in the paper "Temporal Flesh, Material Becomings" (simpkins, 2017). The author borrows a metaphor from Hayward (2010), that the embodiment of a spider includes its web, since the spider senses using its web. We do the same thing with our surroundings; what happens to us is partially dependent on context and (nonlinear!) time. For a system, whether a cell, an organism, or a society, time works according to the internal context and needs of that system; linear, discrete time is imposed from the outside. One way time works nonlinearly in transition, simpkins says, is how trans autobiographical narratives often have re-readings of childhood, reinterpretations, new genderings that work on top of what was already laid down in the past. simpkins says, "What do we make of transition accounts that conceptualise transition processes as returning the body to a form it never had? ... [T]his materiality operates according to a nonlinear framework, where past, present, and future commingle" (simpkins 2017: 125). This trans temporality comes up as well in experiences of dysphoria, some instances of which "[throw] subjectivities back in time to previous incarnations of identity" (simpkins 2017: 139). The remixing of time is part of the experience of being (in) a trans body.
This area of theory isn't made only for trans people; it doesn't describe some kind of special existence that only trans people have. Rather, because trans embodiments clash with normative structures of sex and gender, they are more sensitive to the affective consequences of those normative structures, and, based on a need to live outside those structures, they interact more with the nonlinearity of material reality. However, learning about this helps anyone pay more attention to this nonlinearity, and the usefulness of thinking of the body not as ending at the skin in this moment but stretching out into the past and future, into space shared with other stretched embodiments. Because normative, linear time in the context of capitalism functions to control the productivity of its subjects, and to limit the horizons of possibility, using these ideas of embodiment and time from affect theory and trans scholarship helps generate creativity for action outside of the structures we're conditioned to believe are natural—it gives us a bigger working space for change, a freer place to dream.
A series of switches
I picked up tarot again for the first time in years and started collecting unusual tarot decks. I returned to my belief that every card in every tarot is true in some respect, that the laying out of randomized cards presented a slice of this multifaceted introspection tool, a slice small enough for the mind to work on associations. Each deck has a personality, or put another way, each deck is a different many-faceted gem with distinct properties and inner workings. I found decks that resonated with me, and others that were neat but didn't spark my imagination in a compelling way. I keep them all.
The most unusual of them is Morgan's Tarot, created by Morgan Robbins (no apparent relation to Tony) and illustrated by Darshan Chorpash Zenith. The developer Dan Foley created a fan adaptation of the deck online, hosting all the card images and descriptions. This tarot was originally created in 1970, with a couple of reprintings since then. This deck of 88 cards has no major and minor arcana, no suits, no courts, no numbers. By even rather loose definitions of tarot, it is not a tarot deck. But in the way it relates inside and outside itself, in the way it has a (chaotic) structure that can be climbed into, it is one. All the illustrations are black and white line drawings. The little white book, for every tarot has a LWB in the box, has creative descriptions for each card based on New Age and psychedelic philosophy and culture. However, that summary doesn't do it justice. The deck is a tool or a key to unlock your mind. Robbins says in the introduction:
Whereas psychology tends to accept a dualistic premise, esoteric philosophy works from a nondualistic premise. Thus, in the physical world, there is both the object that is perceived and the perceiver. In the mystic realms, the apparent separation is felt to be an illusion contained within unity. . . . Assuming that you have an ego at this point, the time has now come for you to attain universal consciousness. If you haven't found the switch to universal consciousness, keep looking. Examine Morgan's Tarot and you may find a switch or a whole series of switches taking you, O Traveling One, ever closer to the Main Switch. If upon turning various switches it does not seem that you have found the Main Switch, don't be discouraged. Each switch reveals a clue as to the whereabouts of the Main Switch.
Yeah. The whole deck is like that. When I got the deck, I arranged the cards in the order in which the descriptions were written in the LWB and proceeded to look at every card and read every description. It started with cards like "Transmutation through union of opposites," and "Your mission is not yet complete." My mind vibrated at cards like "No trips without a tripper," "There is no you," and "There are no others." When I finished the deck, on the card "Wordless," I was indeed wordless and felt like I had entered a psychedelic state while totally sober. I hadn't found the Main Switch, but I did find some of those smaller switches as clues. Morgan Robbins gave me a gift. The borders and centrality of my ego were shaken, never to solidify again, and I knew I had found a powerful tool for growth in the specific ways I wanted to grow—out of my ego, free of the need for identity, more in unity with love and the universe.
In the fall of 2017, I was reading a lot of feminist sci-fi, including those using time travel without paradoxes through multiple universes. In this approach to time travel, as we move through time, we're really traversing multiple universes stacked together. Time travel technology would therefore be something dealing more with dimensions than speed, and would allow moving across these realities in a way that appears to go forward or backward in time, but is nevertheless always horizontal, just one reality or another. Without that technology, one is just stuck in whatever universe one finds oneself in at the moment; with choice, one can change certain things about which universe to be in next—and not change other things. The idea has become a standard in pop culture and meme culture, typified in Donnie Darko and with memetic phrases like "meanwhile on another timeline, x never happened." It exploded in popularity in recent years, forming the basis for Rick and Morty and some films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It creates an opportunity for escapism, but it also facilitates creativity and a vision for alternatives.
This idea became useful for me as I dealt with changes in my life, and as I oriented myself toward growth in my mental health. I had started continuous, weekly therapy for the first time so I could climb out of a deep, worrying depression. Paradox-free time travel was a cope at times, a tool at times, and a hindrance at others. Sometimes I felt alienated, like I had left the people I loved behind in another universe, and the ones here were copies from another universe. Not a fun feeling! Or helpful. It did help me, though, to do that thing I learned in therapy, that people say in the serenity prayer: change things that you can and accept things you can't change. If this is the universe I find myself in, I don't have the technology to bring my corporeal self back where I was; I have to accept. My buddy Aaron showed me the album Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, telling me its power is in using it to travel through portals and universes. It will draw you through whatever transformation or transport you need. The first time I listened to the album, I did travel, waking up in a new world. I felt Aaron's compassion for me in every sound. That album has been key to several transformative moments for me since then, and I pass it on to others as well.
He also told me about Carl Rogers' book, On Becoming a Person (1995). Rogers founded the field of humanistic or person-centered psychotherapy, saying that the client rather than the therapist is the subject matter expert and the master of change. Rogers advocated relating to one another as organisms, and to center compassion thus, not disinterested detachment. The book is for anyone in a helping relationship, whether a therapist, teacher, caretaker, parent, or friend. The book is for people who want to be human. I learned from Rogers not just to accept another, but also to seek understanding another as that person understands themself, to withdraw judgment, as judgment does not engender growth. He insisted on genuineness and transparency with one's feelings, and trusting oneself to enter the other's world with openness yet without dissolving. Rogers taught that when faced with a warm relationship, anyone will eventually feel their capacity to change and grow. This made Edelman's antisocial thesis untenable for me, and it helped me see utopia in organismic connection and compassion. I learned compassion for myself in a way I never had. I also learned respect about my boundaries, that critical lesson of self-love that wasn't taught to me by my abusers. I let go of a lot of the judgment that had been keeping me rooted in bitterness.
Around the same time, I learned a technique of introspection that I had used unconsciously before. Inner child meditation helped me do the weird time work I had learned about in Elizabeth Freeman's writing, and others. I could imagine myself encountering a younger me, whatever age I needed to encounter, to communicate compassion to them, to bring them learnings and encouragement from and for the future. I could talk to the me who was bullied in grade school, or abused online in high school, or even very young me, the one who put on mom's hair ornaments and jewelry, who felt ashamed to bring a ragdoll to school in their backpack. I could hug them and give them the unconditional positive regard Rogers said is so necessary. I still use this when I learn something new that younger me could have benefited from, or when I learn about a need I had that wasn't acknowledged. I usually say something like, "I know that you needed this and you weren't able to say it. But I know it now and I'm sorry you didn't receive it. In the future, you will get it; I know that doesn't change things now, but just know that coming from the future, you are loved. You are also loved where you are, it's just some of that love isn't being shown in the way that you need." Every time, this ends in tears for both of us. I emerge, the younger me who is still inside feeling more healed. It sheds layers of disconnect within myself. Time travel works.