Progress is Not Linear
Or, how we can actually find comfort in the Wheel of Fortune
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I have taken to panicking and throwing a tantrum the week before the semester starts.
I never reacted in this way before, not as a professor and certainly not as a student. At any age, I always looked forward to going back to school. My Virgo moon reveled in getting my school supplies just so, and my Gemini rising thrived in getting my school wardrobe just so. Their astrological powers combined and reached their peak in middle school when I repurposed an old teacher’s homework chart I used to play “school” with into an outfit chart that tracked every imaginable combination using the pieces of clothing I owned and ensured that I never repeated an outfit all semester.
I continued a less psychotic version of this excitement and organization before each semester of college, law school, grad school, and even my first few years of teaching. But now, like clockwork, I spiral into a depressive episode approximately two weeks before the start of each semester, and I’m lucky to get a syllabus together and print out my roster of students in time for the first day back. And I think I know why.
Not the end of summer, no. Nothing so pedestrian and basic as that. That would be too simple and easy, and would allow me to live as a normal, well-adjusted human instead of as the maniacally industrious yet perpetually forlorn and slightly nauseated medical marvel that I am.
No, I actually hate summer and can’t wait for it to be over each year. In fact, there are few things more cruel than the irony of summer’s oppressive heat, tormenting you into doing absolutely nothing with your luxurious time off because it’s simply too damn hot to do anything other than slink from one air-conditioned location to another. (Conversely, there are few things more joyous than the smell of wet concrete wafting through your open window after a surprise rain on the first day of September gently wakes you up and makes it feel like autumn, which makes it feel like Halloween, which basically means Christmas and turtlenecks and boots instead of all this boob sweat everywhere I go.)
Okay then. So what is it that I’m grieving at the start of each semester?
My freedom, was my next thought.
And that’s a bit closer, but also not quite right.
What I realize I’m grieving time and time again, something I can’t believe I’m sharing with you but if you’re subscribed and still reading, I consider you a safe person with whom to do so, is my failure - again and again - to “make it” in the glorious time off I was allotted and thus be able to quit my day job.
Every summer and winter break - time to devote to my writing and my tarot work outside of teaching - is a lottery ticket I get to purchase that so many others do not. And every back to school week is another set of losing numbers that sends me back to the daily grind.
In fact, this time off is one of the reasons I switched careers. As a litigator, I got absolutely no time off. I worked at least ten hours a day (and easily more if I had an early morning court appearance) and was so all-consumingly stressed out and worried about work even when I wasn’t technically working that I might as well have been at the office. I certainly knew nothing of summer or holiday breaks!
Now, I feel so privileged and spoiled to get several weeks out of the year off the hamster wheel to work on my craft. And with privilege comes - or should come, at least in my opinion - a sense of responsibility. And for me, that means the underbelly of this delightful time off is the very real obligation I feel to make it count.
The thing about tarot - and about life - is to recognize our patterns. We all have patterns and cycles that guide our lives. After all, growth is not linear. Some of the cycles are spirals - natural and beautiful and allow us to grow and expand with each revolution so that we aren’t ever actually returning to the same place we’ve been before. But other cycles feel a bit more like we are running the same lap around the same track over and over again and never getting anywhere.
(In fact, the sacred spiral is one of the oldest spiritual symbols. It represents natural evolution, growth, and rebirth and can be seen all over the Universe, from the shell of a snail to the Milky Way. The sacred spiral is even part of the ancient symbol for the Mother Goddess or the Divine Mother, thought to be the universally worshipped goddess before patriarchal religions took over.)
When it comes to my current perspective on the cycle of the academic school year, I feel like I’m stuck in a loop and can’t progress. The end of every summer at which point my writing income has again failed to even come close to replacing my teaching income cues the heart-breaking “whomp-whomp” Super Mario Bros. music that kicks your little avatar all the way back to the very first level of the very first world on the epic map that you feel like you will never conquer because you keep running out of time or getting interrupted or falling to your death trying to leap between two green pipes that are simply too far away from each other - what am I supposed to do, fly!?
In Tarot and the Archetypal Journey, Sallie Nichols describes this merry-go-round so aptly in her discussion of the Wheel of Fortune tarot card:
On the one hand, [the sphinx that sits atop the Wheel] presents us with a heroic task, the challenge of human beingness, daring us to find meaning in a system seemingly propelled by mere animal energy. On the other hand, she deliberately distracts us with her conundrums, deflecting us from our quest and sapping our strength with her insatiable demands.
She really nails it on the head, doesn’t she?
So much of our prime time and energy goes to our insatiable and strength-sapping obligations (day jobs, being mother of the year, whatever it may be for you), that when we stumble upon some free time to devote to the “heroic task” of pursuing our passions (again, whatever that is for you), we are often left with the capacity for little more than Sex and the City reruns in your sweatpants.
Well, my friend. I don’t know about you, but this simply won’t do as far as I’m concerned.
Assuming you, like me, have proverbial places to go and people to see and aren’t just biding time until you shuffle off this mortal coil, how do we make these cycles less of a repeating loop and more of an evolving spiral?
How do we maintain a sense of purpose and forward motion against the cyclical powers of the Wheel of Fortune?
Nichols offers a shift in perspective that has gotten me thinking:
We can experience the Wheel as moving throughout all time, spinning forth continuous cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. At such times we no longer find its motion a sterile, repetitive gesture, a ceaseless undulation from day to night and back again. We begin to feel how each succeeding sunrise brings up a wholly new day and how each night’s darkness envelops us newly in its black womb.
Progress is not linear. Accepting this fact rather than trying to fight it is key.
When I think about the progression of my life in this way, in terms of cycles, the Wheel of Fortune becomes almost comforting. If everything was changing and progressing in a linear fashion all the time with absolutely no familiarity or seeming “do-overs” whatsoever, there would be so much potential for chaos, exhaustion, and confusion. We wouldn’t have anything steadfast and predictable to count on, to return to, to appreciate, to build on. We wouldn’t have seasons (literal or figurative) to look forward to, to get nostalgic about, or to approach differently this time around.
Thought of in this way, the annoying repetition of - say - another full load of fall semester classes interrupting the glorious would-be life of a writer - becomes less of a confine and more of a scaffold.
Maybe I can learn to use this cycle in my favor rather than dread a certain stage of it each time it comes around…
And maybe the Wheel of Fortune tarot card isn’t so much about being at the mercy of forces beyond our control (which is how I usually interpret this card), but more about noticing how the various cycles of our lives can be used as a framework for growth and self-discovery.
Maybe the Wheel of Fortune appears in our readings when we need to ease up a bit and remind ourselves that progress is not linear.
The Wheel of Fortune card in The Relative Tarot by Carrie Paris, pictured above, can help us get there.
Sure, we can continue to look at our so-called failures and setbacks as inevitable stagnation, as the Wheel of Fortune cruelly and continuously bringing us back to square one no matter what kind of progress we manage to make in a period of time. Or, we can look for ways the Wheel of Fortune shows up not as confining but as scaffolding. How do these cycles actually support and allow for our creations?
How does the Wheel become a hub around, within, and through which we view ourselves and build our unique and creative lives?
I’m not exactly sure yet how to acknowledge my grief and frustration without letting it turn into resistance and dread, but half the battle is realizing there’s a different way to look at things. And that’s already one step toward breaking this unproductive pattern.
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An additional step you could take is the following tarot spread! I designed it to help us shift our perspective on a challenging cycle and discover how we can use its magic and wisdom in our favor.
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