Monday, August 21, 2006

The Blues in Tarot

Several years ago I happened to be in one of those bored and flipping TV channels modes and though I usually skip right over the country music channel, (Sorry, but it's just not my style) this time I didn't because I heard something deeply soulful and mesmerizing. It was this video by this very young man whose voice did not appear to match his face:

I quickly learned that this artist's name was Jonny Lang and he had begun performing blues professionally when he was a mere fourteen years old. This song is entitled, "Breaking Me" and the desperation in his voice surprised me coming from someone so young. How young? Well, here's one of Jonny's early concerts. I think he was around fifteen when this was made:

I went and saw Jonny Lang in concert last Wednesday. If you like blues, soul, rock or anything in between I highly recommend catching his show. He's a little older now, married, and he's polished his voice and guitar skills and he's only getting better. What does this have to do with tarot? Why, the Blues, of course.

Blues Music is a distinctly American music genre. It is a mixture of African and European styles, produced by African slaves mainly in the southern United States. The songs were meant to be sad and mournful dialogues between the singer and his instrument. The "call-and-response" style is a hallmark of the blues style as well as the passionate emotions and heartbreaking lyrics that speak of loneliness, depression, and oppression. It's a haunting and soulful style and it takes a great deal of musical accomplishment to play it well, but it seems that no matter who you are, everyone can and does "sing the blues" from time to time.

Tarot encompasses the wide range of human experience and emotion, and as such there are a number of cards where the blues are depicted, but the one I feel most singularly represents the emotional landscape of the blues is the Five of Cups.

The grief evident in this card is stark and obvious. The more optimistic among us are quick to point out the cups that are left standing, as many versions of the Five of Cups depict three cups spilled and two remaining, often behind the mourning figure. But here in the Cosmic Deck all five cups are upended and drained. A wilted rose bud lies pathetically in front of her and her face is pinched in a mask of despair. Outside the door the wind blows dead leaves off a bare tree as storm clouds descend. This card hurts.

I like this image because it forbids the hastening of grief. There are no cups standing, no rushing the mourning figure to look at all she has left. There is nothing left. The sadness is overwhelming. Sometimes, no, lots of times, this card actually brings a sense of relief to someone getting their cards read. It acknowledges their pain, it sits with them in their sadness, it tells them, "I know how you feel." Just like the blues. We listen to the songs that pour out their, and our, pain and we say, yes, "I know just how you feel. Me, too." As you lower your head and rock slowly with the beat, you identify with the singer, with the grief and loneliness. Here is a place we should not rush the seeker to leave the fallen cups behind, but instead offer empathy and understanding. In due time they will move on. They will right the cups and fill them again, but for now let us stay with her a moment and share her pain. Listen as she sings that mournful song, feel your heart break in the strains of agonizing despair. There is a time to laugh and a time to cry, says the writer of Ecclesiastes, in every thing there is a season.

To tell people to stop feeling their pain is insensitive at best. To try and move them along to a place where you would feel more comfortable being with them is usually the disguised motivation. Why don't we just tell those slaves of long ago who first sang the blues to just look on the bright side, then? As I've said before, you can't run from grief. It dogs your every step until you sit with it. It commands your attention, your full attention, for a time. A funny thing happens when we finally sit down with our grief, or the grief of someone you know. It passes more quickly than if we attempt to push it away too soon. There is a time for sad songs and an appreciation of the emotions that create those melodies.

Appreciation of sadness? Yes. I said that. For in those deep wells of pain and darkness comes understanding and wisdom. There was a line that director Tom Shadyac cut from the movie Bruce Almighty where God was telling Bruce :"To paint a picture like that, you've got to use some dark colors." He goes on to say,

"You know, the most powerful stories we tell are about people who come from dark colors. They're people who've been challenged by addictions or abuse. And to overcome those things is really the light overcoming the darkness. Without the darkness, you've lost humanity and the power of the light."

In every landscape there must be dark colors. They add richness and depth, a sense of realism and perspective, all so important in art and in life. Without those dark colors the picture is flat, even though all the brighter colors are there. Our time spent in the blues is not wasted nor unnecessary. Even a child of fourteen could find something in his experience to relate to the blues he sang. It's part of the human experience and something some scientists believe we are hardwired to respond to. It has been suggested that certain sad music elicits chills because music hooks directly into the brain's primitive emotional circuits; more specifically, that music has some sort of relationship with the call of an infant crying for its mother. Separation calls are expected to evoke powerful feelings in people and human separation calls have properties related to chill-producing sounds, such that the cry is at once intense, familiar and sad. (If you're interested in the effects of music on the human brain, this paper from the Nordic Journal of Music Therapy is excellent.) It's natural to respond to someone crying and yet our western society makes that response feel unnatural, uncomfortable, and indulgent. That kind of "chin up and all that" nonsense is counterproductive to resolution of grief and the recovery of joy.

When the Five of Cups appears in a reading, recognize the pain. Speak its name. Reach out and respond to that separation call rather than be too quick to point out the silver lining on that dark cloud. Believe me, the grieving one is despondent enough without you reminding her what she should or ought to be feeling instead of this emptiness. She feels it. She hurts. And that is why she is singing the blues.

Cosmic Tarot By Norbert Losche Published by US Games Copyright 1986
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