Some 25 years ago I was in Bucharest, Romania, with my mother. She was visiting me at the students’ residence, a block of flats of 5 floors. I was on the third floor. During the visit we experienced a major earthquake. Our great fortune was that it didn’t last long, given that it had a magnitude of 7 on the Richter scale. Our hometown being Arad, quite away from the Romanian volcanic eruptions and strangely aligned tectonic plates, I can safely say that we had no idea what was happening when the whole building started shaking. Books and books and books started flying around, hitting us in the head, and the doors flung open, disclosing the view from the shared toilet, across our room. Students were running amok, some with no pants on, some with their pants half way down to the knees. Not exactly the best attire for tour-de-force running.
Mother’s head got illuminated: ‘It’s an earthquake,’ she shouted, and then she started coordinating the most amazing escape. In a split second, she assigned places to the people in the room. Some others were also visiting. ‘You, over there, and you, over to the other door, and you right here. No one makes a move until I say so.’ We were all listening in a catatonic state of ‘panic-without-drive’, dumbfounded and deaf, and, for my part, reminiscing this episode in Don Quixote, a favorite literary passage as well: “I came to the gate, where some dozens or so of devils were playing tennis… in their hands they held rackets of fire; but what amazed me still more was that books, apparently full of wind and rubbish, served them for tennis balls, a strange and marvellous thing.”
So, books were flying around at the gate of hell and mother was in command. While executing her plan of ‘and now what,’ followed closely by the plan of ‘the next move’, she was lecturing in a most cold and matter-of-fact tone, while we were all holding on to the thresholds and to the door-frames: ‘This is how you distinguish between people who are humble enough to think about their mortality in situations under great duress, and the ones who think they will live forever. You will find the latter stepping on everybody’s heads and fallen bodies on the stairs – stairs which will be the first to collapse if this shaking continues for much longer. I have no intention of dying from being trampled upon. We’re going to stay here, strong and impassionate and listen to the horrible sounds the earth makes. You will never hear a more terrifying sound in your life. Might just as well enjoy it.’
This we did. I almost went deaf, but in the process I couldn’t resist the allure of listening to the telluric sirens. Mighty power the earth has. ‘Wasn’t that a fantastic experience in the middle of the confusion?’, mother wanted to know. We all said yes, while still holding the doors, and she checked that off her list of things to experience before checking out.
Next she said, after a small break: ‘This is not over yet. More is coming in smaller bits. We cannot go out yet. I still have no intention of dying among the ones who can’t control their shit. Better to make ourselves useful. You, over there, get the blankets. And you, over there, get to the fridge. You see that long salami in there? Good. Put it into this bag over here. And you, here, gather these papers that identify us, and hand the other one that loaf of bread. We need to make it easy for the officials, if they have to come dig us out of some unfortunately mortal pile landed on our heads, should such misfortune befall us indeed. We must always think of others and ourselves in relation.’
Still in that catatonic state of ‘panic-without-drive’ – though the drive was beginning to make itself felt – we all listened to her. Sure enough, another major quake came over us, and we started clutching our doors again. Interestingly, we all remembered which door was our door. In this eerie knowledge, even the sound of the rumbling earth was making sense, especially now that we had consciously attended to our task of surviving collectively. Mother was right about everything.
When the second quake was beginning to subsist, mother decided it was time to risk getting her nose out on the corridor to inspect the premises: ‘No one makes a move, until I get back.’ I was still with Cervantes, so that suited me fine. Such marvelous books full of wind and rubbish were flying around. Still. The smell from the toilet was pungent, however, coloring the fragments of words on the floor. But there was no trace of the desperate ones anywhere peeing near it or rushing down the staircase. Total silence.
Mother came back from her surveying of the field. ‘Grab all the stuff,’ she said, ‘and don’t forget the flashlight. We are going to go down, and we will not look back or start contemplating over the debris. You get that?’ ‘Yes, ma’am,’ we said.
In a split second we were all out, breathing. More quakes came, and we heard the earth moaning and sighing, but we were safe. All this took place in the middle of the night. No one really knew what was going to happen, and how many shakes and quakes we were going to go through, but one thing was sure. No building was going to kill us. If anything, it would have been a tree, the cold, or some other such natural force. But we survived.
I’m not sure how the many people out in the park went entirely safe, though. After some 20 minutes of waiting, I saw shivering bodies, and blank faces. Everyone was freezing to death. After 3 hours in the park, everyone was hungry too. We were the only people well dressed, well wrapped in blankets, and well fed. Not to mention that when some officials did show up to reassure us, we were the first to hand the police our identity cards. None of the others had any such papers on them.
I often return to this memory now, and my mother’s wit and nerve never cease to amaze me. She was a very strong woman, a scientist really, and a master logician. But her condensed thinking in those moments, full of compassion, is imprinted in my memory in a most precise and magical way.
I like to think that I have inherited some of that coolness, as I experience the same feeling of being grabbed by the presence of spirit, which in Romanian, however, is quite a literal manifestation. When we say, ‘prezenta de spirit,’ we mean wit in its archaic form, to signify strong character, and a cognitive faculty that’s sharp and vigilant and that only gets sharper and more vigilant the more it is under pressure and stress. For instance, I am the type who cannot go to a hospital without being on the verge of fainting all the time, but if an occasion arises for me to mend someone’s wounds, then I’m just there. My thinking goes cold, and I know exactly what to do. I am fast too, and I never hesitate.
This presence, or the capacity to be there, right there where one is not, or never under any normal circumstance, is something that fascinates me. What do we do in dire situations? When Paris falls down, an earthquake comes, or fire breaks out? What kind of wit do we exert under stress, when a flood hits us, or a natural catastrophe reminds us that we are not omnipotent?
The GeneralMy mother had a nickname. Everyone called her ‘Madam, the General.’ My father was in the army. His brother was in the army, and retired as an actual general, and yet everyone in the family thought of my mother as having the real strategic skills that go into handling a mundane situation in a very cool way. I am lucky to have known such a woman in my life. Yet as a woman, she got nothing out of what she was really good at, though I often think that she could have commanded legions, of devils and others, or she could have created connections and make agreements with extraterrestrials on Jupiter, if she had been given the chance. Now her life circumstance and presence of spirit make me reflect on how we get to realize that only that which we are really good at can unleash our true creative potential.
What’s my Wit?
So here’s a question for all to ask the cards, which I think discloses some of our unconscious force. It is my belief that what gets us through tough times is always a force that lies buried in our unconscious. Yet the more we can integrate this force into our conscious lives, the more we can act decisively and unhesitatingly on behalf of others and ourselves. The more we know this force, the more we can exercise it without dominance or panic. It is this force that allowed my mother to act, philosophize, and be concerned with the others beyond mere words, all at the same time in a situation that could easily have turned disastrous. What I like about this force that comes from the unconscious is its power to make itself felt in a way that’s not arrogant, controlling for the sake of controlling, or concerned with conquering territory for the purpose of display. This force just IS, and as such it is beyond good or evil.
Here’s the question. For this I will read someone else’s cards, as my own force is one I prefer to keep to myself:
What is the greatest inner force that I’m capable of, of which however I know nothing? How can I integrate it into my conscious life? What must I NOT do with it, or use it for?
I use here one of my favorite card layouts.
The horizontal line of three cards, 6 of Cups, King of Coins, The Magician, tells us something about the situation, addressing the question at hand.
The card on top, 3 of Swords, suggests what to do, and the card at bottom, Queen of Coins, what not to do.
We can read this in the following way:
From the path of love (6 Cups) springs material power (King of Coins). This material power is then distributed on the table (The Magician), and orchestrated by fragments to yield magical content. In the King of Coins the power is concentrated in a point: the big coin in his lap. This he rolls over, like in bowling, to the Magician, to hit possibilities. So the greatest power here, yet unconscious, is that of going after the pins. You don’t know how many you hit, but you try.
The card on top, the 3 of Swords, gives the following advice: In order to make this power conscious, you must accept the possibility of loss. Sometimes the bowling pins keep standing. Sometimes they resist being toppled. A Magician who doesn’t know how to lose is no Magician at all. If he exhibits too much attachment to the desire to win, or to the arsenal of things at his disposal to make things happen, he cannot pay attention to where attention is really due. A Magician who is attached to his desires or fears is an amateur.
The card at bottom says not to form partnerships. We find here the King of Coins’ own consort. But if he is to make his inner unconscious force conscious, he must avoid the woman who is like him, or the woman who exhibits the same qualities, here, as the pragmatic business woman, the woman who makes money, or is into managing money. The work of integrating your unconscious force into your consciousness is often the business of ‘you’re on your own.’ You cannot turn to the wife and say to her, ‘now listen, honey, I need a helping hand here…’
Sometimes the cards offer intriguing suggestions, and often we don’t think that in work on the self, we can rely on the cards in the pack that are associated with loss, pain, decrease, illness, and poverty. Rather, we prefer to gain things, even if that be wisdom, not lose things, even if that be our aversion. Yet, allowing the cards to offer what we would never even think of can be a very rewarding activity. Especially when we realize that we may be at crossroads, brought there by our encounter with resistance, walls, and limitations on our path. This is often a sure sign that we are not doing what we are best at. Hence, we must make some decisions. But based on what knowledge of ourselves? We may think we know who we are and what we are, but as culture has shown, this knowledge is not something we produce or own ourselves. True knowledge of ourselves is never obvious, and it takes a lot of effort to acquire it, to process it, and to use it wisely.
Use the cards to get there. To access what informs your inner being, and see what you discover. Accepting what you must give up is a sign of control and true magic.
I’m running a course on Cards and Magic beginning in January 2016. Registration opens on December 1. Check it out and hop on board. You might get enchanted and learn about power.