This is a guest post shared by Kathryn Silverstein.
I always overpack for vacations.
Oftentimes, I bring a blank notebook, and the child within me imagines that she can amuse herself by writing a novel that fills its pages. But I know that writing doesn’t really work that way.
Creative process isn’t strictly linear. It’s like climbing stairs in an Escher painting – you exist on multiple levels simultaneously, the thread that is your path unspooling across the steps of your imagination.
In the backseat of my family’s car on the way to Maine, I scribble something like the beginnings of a first draft of the novel that’s been percolating in my head since last winter.
I think I’m finally moving beyond a conceptualization of the written word that relies on scarcity, that is, on choosing the exact right words and once they’re chosen, that opportunity will never come again. When really, it’s more like endless possibility, multiplicity. I’m aligning my deep waters with the everyday self and the tasks I have to complete in ordinary time. All of this constant writing is translation work. The ability to gloss what I’m feeling, what’s running through me like a river–all translation. It’s not that I don’t find this difficult; I do. Concise by habit, I have to nudge myself to keep writing even when I’ve scraped across the limit of what I have to say.
“How many ova have I swallowed,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in one of the innumerable journals he kept over the course of his lifetime, “who knows what will be hatched in me?”
I’m currently training to be a Kohenet – a Hebrew Priestess.
This work centers earth-based ritual practice and feminist leadership through revisioning Jewish tradition. For me, it’s an innately creative practice that aims to repair the divide between mind and body that’s so present in Western thought and tradition. In our training sessions, we often discuss what it means to priestess, as a verb.
I appreciate the fluidity of this verb; the recognition that action can be more significant than fixed labels. For me, to priestess is to attend to, to approach with an openness that weaves together different aspects of life in a way that is narratively and spiritually resonant.
This post is an exploration of writing as medicine, and writing as priestessing.
The Jewish feminist poet and scholar Alicia Ostriker wrote, “…I do not want to separate what I do as a scholar and critic from what I do as a poet, nor do I wish to divide my writing from my life, or my intellect from my passions or my spirituality.” My Kohenet training has focused on thirteen aspects of the Divine Feminine; Ostriker’s sentiment invokes the qualities of Oreget, the Weaver.
As in many other mythologies, Jewish tradition contains the basis for recognizing the Divine as one who controls the threads of our lives. Psalm 139:15 directly references this conceptualization, wherein the writer claims to have been “…woven in the depths of the earth.” Additionally, there exists ample evidence that Jewish women were responsible for weaving Temple curtains in the Second Temple Period. Women’s prayers and invocations throughout the medieval era focused on weaving, spinning, and other creative arts. In Kohenet, we recognize the archetype of the Weaver as one who brings together seemingly disparate strands to create a grand tapestry–this can manifest in modern times through storytelling, fabric arts, the crafting of ritual, and the bringing together of community.
I see Ostriker’s desire to weave together her many identities echoing in my own life. As a Ph.D. candidate, writer, white Jewish woman, and lesbian who struggles with depression, anxiety, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I have had difficulty not conceptualizing myself as split in many different directions depending on the various needs of each positionality. I hoped that this family vacation would provide me with an opportunity for much-needed grounding.
A few days after I arrived in Maine, I wandered into a shop stocked primarily with shells, crystals, and a handful of tarot decks. Among them was the Wild Unknown Tarot. I’ve had my eye on that deck for a while, and the moment seemed serendipitous.
When I brought it back to my hotel room for a deck interview, things took an unexpected turn.
Everything was going really well. The Wild Unknown deck, in the interview spread, revealed itself to be a deck of intuition, introspection, and artistry. One that is particularly in tune to creativity, with a hidden intensity and transformative potential. I was told that the deck will not necessarily point out the obvious and might not always be direct in its messaging. I looked forward to learning, with the cards, how to navigate the newly expanded creativity that I’d been chasing through all my journaling.
Then, I asked about best practices of learning and collaboration.
I drew the seven of cups.
I interpreted this with some trepidation – perhaps the cards were telling me to take care, that we must work together to avoid deception and illusion, that I should remain grounded, and not let my vision lose its legs.
But then the next card, the five of cups, suggested that the potential outcome of our working relationship was grief and disappointment. I knew that, as excited as I felt, now was not the right time to start working with this deck.
I pulled one more card, to clarify how I would determine my readiness. The three of wands – when I have clearer goals and can stand on my own.
That week, Beth had posted a weekend reading link roundup that included a mid-year evaluation from Alexandra Franzen. I decided to sit by the ocean and examine my hopes and goals from the beginning of the year – both the secular year, and the Jewish New Year back in early October.
On Rosh Hashanah 5577, I had just passed my Ph.D. qualifying exams and come down with a feverish case of bronchitis. A month later, Trump was elected, and my fiancée and I rushed to get married the next week, just in case anything were to happen that overturned marriage equality. While I had initially planned to write and submit my dissertation prospectus – my proposal and chapter summaries – by January, this definitively did not come to pass.
Sitting by the ocean that day, I considered the fact that I still hadn’t finished that document and submitted it to my committee.
No wonder I wasn’t ready to work with a visionary deck like the Wild Unknown Tarot. I was uncomfortably, irrefutably stuck.
I’ve found that when I’m stuck in one area of my life, it often manifests in other seemingly unrelated areas, creating an energy block powerful enough to halt my natural creativity. I decided on crafting a ritual to facilitate the transition from prospectus to dissertation with which I was so clearly struggling.
At this point, I was feeling some disappointment that my new deck had rejected me upfront, particularly because I had thought we would make such a good creative match. On another level, however, I knew that I needed to be more grounded. I needed clearer goals. I needed to sort things out and get my house in order. Were I to work with the deck without doing this kind of preparation, I would potentially get caught up in its headiness and esoteric symbolism, losing myself ultimately to disappointment when my unstated goals refused to manifest.
I prepared a ritual kavanah – an intention. I desired to transition from finishing my prospectus to working on my dissertation with the full support of the universe. In wondering how to shape the ritual, which I decided would take place on the beach, I came up with a metaphor for the way that ocean waves mold the sand: it is possible to be grounded and fluid simultaneously.
Several days later, I headed to the water and felt myself falling into ritual time, soaking in the sacredness of the place and the moment. I said a prayer for supportive movement and transition with wisdom, weaving, and the sensual groundedness of the earth. I immersed, and then gave myself a blessing of the elements–sand, water, air, sun–and returned to the beach to journal about the experience.
“I no longer want to be just a consciousness,” I wrote, “I am embodied, with grace.”
Still feeling buoyed up by ritual, I returned to my hotel room and laid out the cards for the interview spread a second time. Almost all the cards I pulled were exactly the same – except for the last two.
The card regarding learning and collaboration came through as Justice. This deck will facilitate decision making in the realm of my creative interests.
Finally, the card signifying the potential outcome of our working relationship was the nine of pentacles. A card defined by grounding; by the ability to develop and sustain rewarding work. I think I actually laughed with joy and the giving of thanks.
Card 5.: Go!, from the Moon Angels/Malakh Halevana deck by Rebekah Erev
On the final day of my vacation, I pulled one of Rebekah Erev’s – also a Kohenet! – Moon Angel/Malakh Halevanah cards and it was Go! I love that double resonance between go and gay (the yiddish pronunciation); that queer potentiality in this expansion of the universe that is my mind and body! I have to reach out, reach, reach! The illustration on the card itself is crystallized around a center, yet splayed out towards the horizon. I need both in my life.
It’s a little like being grounded in beach sand.
More information about the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute and the thirteen archetypes can be found in Jill Hammer and Taya Shere’s book The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership.
About the author:
Kathryn (she/her or they/them) is a Kohenet-in-training and a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies. She is currently working on her first novel, which can only be described as a fantasy/sci-fi/jewish/queer/detective story about antagonists who fall in love. They live in Brooklyn with their wife and their very fat, very old cat, and can be found on twitter at @rynsilverstein.