Food & Privilege: a free form face up spread

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Temperance, Strength, The World, and Justice from Emily Carding’s Transparent Tarot

Lately I’ve been in need of healing. My digestive health took a turn for the less-than-good last December. Ever since I’ve been struggling to get back to eating and sleeping without pain. Doing the dance where you accept the need to pare down, maybe ask for support. You know the one. The kind where you explore the new less-able normal. Tarot helps me name the new normal. Especially when I’d rather insist “I can still do it.” Below is a free-form face up spread I used to envision my own healing as well as the thoughts that inspired the spread.

Food & Privilege

Last week hip hop legend Phife Dawg of Tribe Called Quest passed away. Tribe was a staple in my childhood and again later when I grew old enough to understand their music. I didn’t know Phife struggled with diabetes, but with my personal experience losing young relatives to various autoimmune diseases, it did not surprise me. Phife’s passing reminded me that early death and autoimmune disease goes beyond my family. Statistics suggest these things affect countless other people of color. His passing reminds me of the relationship between privilege and health care, of the less popular relationship between health and food, and of my own food journey and autoimmune lineage.

I’ve lived with low grade food allergies my whole life. The fact that I can even name it sets me apart from my past. My history is not that of naming and knowing but of mystery and magic: strange unexplained aches, pains, and moods. With limited access to health care and the like, faith was put into faith. In adulthood, I transitioned from the mindset that good health happens by chance to the mindset that by herb, energy work, mantra, habit, or doctor’s appointment, one way or another wellness is something you do any way you can.

Taking Stock

This month I spilt broth on my laptop, because I was writing 3000 words or more a day on a small serving table and transitioning to a diet that meant constant eating and constant broth. Also, I believed it best to take up as little space as possible as I work. Best to stay small and inexpensive. With the spill my concept of “enough” crashed right into my attempts at healing. I saw an immediate link between gut health and scarcity thinking. I inherited both during domestication.

To keep both is to live without questioning and without choice. And how might my body interpret a directive such as “stay small and low maintenance”? Maybe less breath, less blood flow, less oxygen, less space. Clenched. Cut off. What other ways have I decided to stay small even in the face of recent rapid expansion? How might I claim more space? For starters I got myself a desk. One big enough to spread my cards all over the place and do a proper Face Up Spread.

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A Free Form Face Up Spread

Maybe it was the size of the desk but this spread ballooned out. It started with a reversed knight of cups from the Tarot de St Croix. I pulled it face down during the last full moon eclipse in answer to the question: What stands in the way of my self care? I have a history with this knight. Last time we met I pulled it face up to represent the way out of the prison of my over analysis and judgement. Here, context dictates another interpretation entirely. I notice this knight looks overrun. They succumb to emotion. They kneel. This knight asks me, When do I let emotion rule me? Food. When I think of food I want to do what it is comfortable and easy. Even when it’s not what I need. What card represents this craving of comfort?

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I linger at the six cups. Memories of quarter waters and ices in the summer time. When three times a year there was real cooked food at a relative’s, and the rest of the time food was something out of a box. Food was never alive. But it was comfortable and it was easy. Memories are like the guests at the tea party in my head and heart. The tea party – with its warm memories, familiar faces, and sweet treats – feels complete. How can I integrate the familiar and emotionally satisfying with new things that nurture the physical body? Integration. Wholeness. What does wholeness look like?

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The World card jumps out at me. I notice the differences in the symbolism in the St Croix: The four figures that normally adorn the corners of the card are located toward the top, the bull faces inward, an angel-like figure seems to perch on the central figure, the central figure stands on the world. The card is at once more cosmic and more grounded than traditional versions of the card. It brings to mind interrelated systems, both ancient and modern. Different strata in society and intergalactic strata. The hands of the figure say “as above, so below.” The card begs a larger question:  What does wholeness look like on a larger scale?

Mainstream Wholeness – The Four Cardinal Virtues

I detour into philosophical wholeness. Maybe it was the similarity to the zodiacal figures in the World card. Maybe it was the number four, or my persistent habit to frolic in academia, or the World card and it’s association with prudence.  One way or another I arrived at the Four Cardinal Virtues: Temperance, Courage, Prudence, and Justice. The classical building blocks of a virtuous life according to Plato and company. The necessary strata: the temperance of all classes (especially that of the lower), strength of the warrior class, prudence of the ruling class, and justice – the balance between the three.

Even as I’ve grown to prioritize non-linear, nondualistic, and unlimited consciousness, I still recognize in myself the domesticated need to separate and categorize in that overly active western way. I looked at the tarot cards associated with these virtues looking for wholeness and how I might integrate warring parts of myself: that which thoughtlessly judges, categorizes, and separates, and that which consciously expands and transcends the dominant paradigm, that which includes.

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There’s an abundance of fire in these cards with Temperance and Strength. Fire – matters of the spirit and will. Even if the symbolism overlaps in these images, there’s differences in the meanings. Whereas in tarot today temperance means doing and alchemy, the classical meaning would have had more to do with not doing or refraining. The classic strength shows an adversarial relationship with humankind and animus-urge unlike the affirmation and recognition we see in the Tarot de St. Croix. The World, which used to mean prudence or wisdom, currently trends towards integration or wholeness. The first three virtues are cautionary – refrain, beware, limit, protect, confront. Only with justice do we start to see the relationships between things, the balance that pervades even limited concepts of self.

Still, none of it serves day to day.

Not the theory. Not the antiquated and oppressive hierarchical breakdown nor the modern manifestation of said hierarchy. What serves, in this case, is what’s missing. The story that’s left out of the books. With the World representing earth and Justice air, water is the missing element. The soul of things. The spirit. The emotional core. What might alternative wholeness look like?

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Wholeness starts small. It floats on an ocean of feelings atop its own expanded consciousness. It tends the spirit. It mends. Like a mess in a kitchen, made or cleaned. Like dancing first thing, a song in the car. Full blast or lip synced. Like time to not-do. Wholeness lives in the everyday guided by the heart. The half-written poem. In the untold story.

Alternative Wholeness

Last week I read a food justice piece by friend/mentor Naya Jones that challenges stock stories about food and the global majority. As I read it I heard my own stories at war within: my countless experiences with processed food, my own food ignorance, and my grandmother’s stories about cultivating the garden that would sustain an entire community throughout the depression. Before she moved to a city where she would never use the bulk of these skills. I never tasted her stock. I never smelt her pie. But I still think of her whenever I open a homemade pickled jar of anything. Because even if I wasn’t there for it, I still know her story.

What does wholeness look like?

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Page of Cups, Four Pentacles, Nine Cups, Two Cups

Wholeness looks like a day that starts and ends with loving self-care practices. It looks like building a solid foundation of healthy habits and taking it in stride when the ocean of life tears it down and you need to rebuild again. It looks like receiving love and being filled with what serves. It looks like the accompanying gratitude. It looks like patience when your effort and discipline feels universes away from its physical manifestation – your healing. It looks like faith in faith. Wholeness is where my symptoms, memories – painful and sweet, current privilege and past lack, and the memories of my foremothers sit down for tea and the tea still tastes good.

How-To: Free Form Face Up Spread

  1. Ask a question about a challenge, block, hope, or intention. Make sure to ask questions that open doors rather than search for certainty. Use How and What rather than Will and When.
  2. Spread your cards face up and let your eyes roam until you choose. Maybe you keep returning to a card or it reminds you of something. Set it aside. You may have half the deck or a single card. Alternatively you can take each card one by one or choose a card right away if one came to mind. If you still have a stack, go through it once more, narrowing and noticing. Until you have one or just a few cards.
  3. Interpret as usual or maybe the card leads to a memory, a feeling, a meal you need to make, a song to sing. Something about this kind of pull invites doing-the-thing. Let understanding take a back seat to embodiment. Ask how can I embody this card? If questions build on one another and keep flowing, go until some semblance of wholeness. Use a time limit if you must. How did it go?

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I geek out over an alternative way to do face up spreads at my site. 

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  1. Wonderfully written piece. And I so very much relate to your food experiences although from a very different cultural perspective. I was raised in a middle-class, white, Canadian family. My history with processed foods is from a legacy of women learning to ‘have it all’ and the food industry distorting food to fit that desire.

    My grandmother was one of the first college educated women in her family and worked full-time as a school teacher while still doing all the housework and putting food on the table as my grandfather expected. Food from a box and Betty Crocker cake mixes are what allowed her to be a ‘good’ homemaker while pursuing a career.

    My mother and father were among the first generation of couples sharing responsibilities equally. Both worked to support the family and both shared the housework and cooking equally. Both took time off to stay home with us kids at different points and both were heavily involved with our extra curricular activities. So between working and coaching and volunteering, again, food in a box, microwaves and takeout featured heavily in our family dinners with home cooked meals saved for special occasions like birthdays and Christmas.

    Autoimmune issues and chronic illnesses in myself were always dismissed by doctors as the result of a poor constitution. My mother was told her breastmilk wasn’t enough to sustain my sister and I so we were given formula that was ‘better’ for us. I was practically raised on doses of penicillin and ear, nose and throat surgeries to remove glands, put tubes in ears etc. All the wonders of modern medicine. I was 30 when a naturopath I happened to work with told me for the first time in my life that my health issues were caused by food intolerances. Up until that point I believed, along with my mother and grandmother before me that processed food and convenience were the miracles of modern life and that anything sold in a grocery store as food and or medicine could not be harmful or it wouldn’t be on the shelves.

    I loved hearing about your cultural experience of food and privilege and your tarot questions resonated and inspired me. I wish you continued strength on your journey back to health.

    • THIS!!!! >> “food in a box, microwaves and takeout featured heavily in our family dinners with home cooked meals saved for special occasions like birthdays and Christmas.”
      Yes this sounds veeeeeeeeeeeery familiar!!!

      and THIS >>> “…anything sold in a grocery store as food and or medicine could not be harmful or it wouldn’t be on the shelves.” Right ‘cuz I mean duh! We’re supposed to eat these things!

      THIS too!!>> “I was practically raised on doses of penicillin and ear, nose and throat surgeries to remove glands, put tubes in ears etc. All the wonders of modern medicine.” >> These were recommended for me but my family’s feeling was “we just couldn’t afford all that.” Thank the universe! Because of this scarcity mindedness I lived most of my childhood pharm free!!

      I am floored by the commonality betw our families in how they prioritized time and food and conceptualized “success” in relation (and reaction) to capitalist systems!! The kind that don’t have the interests of families in mind.

  2. Oh wow, this is so wonderful and magickal. I grew up in dire poverty and a mother who’s mental health made her unable to work with what resources we did have. As an adult I have chronic illnesses AND disordered eating. This post means so much to me and I’ll be decompressing it for so long. Thank you.

  3. abbie says:

    Wow, this really speaks to me. I have a completely different cultural background – I am white, and grew up middle class. My dad was away a lot for work, and my mom was consistently working more than twelve hour days every day of the week. She did her best to cook good food for us, but it was (very understandably) difficult.

    Add to that, my mother struggled with disordered eating. She was very, very anorexic in high school, and while she’s no longer suffering from anorexia, her body image and standards are definitely still a problem. She passed that on to me – not in an abusive way, but just because I really love my mother and look up to her, I took on some of her practices.

    So now, now that I’m a busy adult trying to live without much money and eat healthy food, I get very critical of myself when I buy processed foods. Sometimes, when I’m working/in school 80 hours a week and trying to get by, I need a meal in my freezer for when I run out of leftovers. And that’s ok. I shouldn’t have to beat myself up for this.

    This was also complicated by finding out that I’m lactose intolerant – the my low-grade misery was because of eating dairy. I grew up in Wisconsin. All of my comfort foods were filled with cheese. I had to radically change some of my self care routines so that they were not damaging me. And that … sucked.

    So thank you for writing this! This is so important to explore, and it’s so important to hear other peoples’ perspectives on food and what personal food justice looks like for them.

  4. Skipper says:

    I was raised in the Canadian forest by parents who grew everything we ate and distrusted the entire “systems”. Although (the super right wing Christian ideologues and parenting style was) broken in it’s own way, I’m awash in gratitude for all the good that it was, after reading this. We lived off 50 a week for most of my childhood, (family of 7) but we gardened, preserved food, played in the forest and didn’t get any medicines or interventions that weren’t super necessary. Thank you for your beautiful writing, sharing, insights… ??

  5. Ahh- I just used this spread for a major work challenge/transition I am in the midst of, & it was incredibly insightful & energy-shifting. Thank you for sharing this!

  6. Evvie says:

    Oh wow. Thank you so much for sharing this, Siobhan. All these comments, too. All I can say is I can relate, and I love to read wisdom on health and privilege re: food. This speaks to a so much that I’m in the thick of figuring out now, and I’m definitely trying this spread this week. Thank you!!!

  7. Siobhan, I so appreciate your thoughtful and deep style of writing and storytelling.
    I feel fortunate that although we were very poor growing up, my mother, who was raised in a broke and dysfunctional household where there was never enough food (and a mother who didn’t like cooking, a father who just didn’t) chose to learn how to feed us and take care of our health wholesomely and naturally.
    Your diet sounds suspiciously like GAPS, which I did for a year last year, trying to rebalance my own digestion issues. What work! I wish you luck, and look forward to your next bit of writing.

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