Last year, I undertook a mission to liven up my apartment, which at the time had mostly just blank cream walls and existed only to hold my furniture and the ever-growing piles of books that now make up 40 percent of the floor space. This project did not get very far, and in that, was much like many of my other projects. But I did accomplish a few things during the process, my favorite of which was the diagram of the Tree of Life on my bedroom wall.
I painted ten paper circles with watered-down acrylics and taped them to the wall; the way the paint dried left the sephira looking like ten gas giants, misty swirls and spots of inexplicable light or dark. Between them, I taped the corresponding cards of the Major Arcana of a Rider-Waite Tarot deck, from the Fool on down to the World. I hoped they would be an aid to memory, since I've never been much good with Tarot or with the paths between the spheres. Unfortunately, the Tree of Life hangs on the opposite wall from my desk, so I only see it when I'm lying in bed, and thus I have not accomplished as much with it as I'd hoped.
Last week, I was awakened by a call from my father at about two o'clock in the afternoon. (It's not just that I'm lazy—I work nights.) As we talked, I looked up at the Tree of Life absently, and then frowned as I saw something I had never noticed before.
"Hey, dad, you know the Rider-Waite deck?"
"Huh?" he said. "No, I don't know him. What did he write?"
"Not 'the writer.' Rider-Waite, the Tarot deck."
"Oh, okay," he said. "What about it?"
"I'm just looking at the trumps," I said. "The High Priestess is sitting between two pillars with the letters B and J on them. What's that about?"
"That's an old Masonic thing. The pillars at the temple of Solomon. Stands for . . . What, let me think. Boaz and Jachin . . ." His voice became muffled. "Let me have a pound of that salami there . . ."
"Where are you?" I asked when he returned.
"The grocery store."
"You're talking about Tarot symbolism and Freemasonry at the lunchmeat counter?" I said. "The people there must think you're strange."
"They know me here. They're used to it."
"Okay, well, here's another. The Magician and Strength. They both have infinity signs over their heads. None of the other cards do. What's that about?"
"That's a little trickier . . . Let me think about that." I heard him say hello to the janitor, whom he knew by name. "All right. Let me see if I remember it right. I always get Rider-Waite mixed up with the Thoth deck. Strength—she's taming the lion, right?"
I leaned up and made two discoveries about the card: one, that the animal at the bottom of the frame was, in fact, a lion, and not some sort of enormous dog as I'd always assumed, and two, that the figure in the drawing was a woman. (Look, I said I didn't know much about Tarot.) "Yeah, that's right."
"And that one's between . . ."
"Gevurah and Chesed."
"Okay. Well, my best guess is both of the cards represent a kind of transformation," he said, and went on to explain how the Magician could be seen as the transmutation of pure spirit into the highest level of the material world in the tree. Strength, on the other hand, represented the transmutation of the emotions into the mind. Two alchemies, one for humanity and one for the universe. (At least that's how I understood it; his explanation was a little over my head.)
He paused, and then, with a sigh, said, "Ah, all of these 'how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?' questions. I remember when we used to have them all the time. But the old days are gone forever."
"What do you mean?"
"We've been Madonna-ed," he said. "The point of Kaballah—of that whole kind of magick—is that it's difficult. It's hard, and it's esoteric, and it takes years to get much out of it. I know I probably studied Kaballah for a decade before it really started to work for me. But, you know. Now most people who come to it hear about it through Madonna, or someone like her. And to them it's just another thing where you sit down, and chant some things you don't understand, and then you feel good about it. I fear the old ways are dying fast. They did the same thing to Yoga."
I lay back, looked at the whole of the Tree, the ten sphere and the twenty-two paths between them. I marveled at the beauty of the form, the intricacy of the design. In one of my favorite comic book series, Alan Moore and J.H. Williams' Promethea, the Tree of Life is described as a map of the universe, and a map of the human soul. Lying there, I could see it, just for a moment.