Just a little note: this year I hope to send out two newsletters monthly, with one edition every month answering submitted questions with short tarot readings and kinda chat more with you and talk shop about tarot. Hope you enjoy this one, and you can find out how to submit a question at the end of the newsletter!
Hello from a sunrise-tinged, fraught, fecund, and vibratingly exciting time of year. I want to talk to you about The Emperor, the fourth card of the Major Arcana, and also the tarot card for the year 2020 (you figure this out by adding up the numbers in a year until you get a number between 1-21). Which is to say, I want to talk about authority, power (always power!) and anxiety.
For a couple months, when people asked me what I would do after I finished work in December, I would say: I'll be taking a break. I said that so often, drawing and redrawing a circle around January 2020 like a border. It's very much January 2020 now, and I am definitively taking that break. Waking up late, staying at home, spending time on leisurely activities with outputs that serve no one but myself, like putting together a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, like laying around in bed and playing around with abstract project ideas, or just wilfully letting time pass without a thought about waste.
Without a thought about waste! I'm lying. I let time pass, but there was always a tendril reaching out from my mind and body towards the thoughts I should be doing something more useful. Soon, I won't be able to do this anymore. I'm wasting this time I could be using for something 'better' for me, and I'll regret it later. I can't be waking up late forever which is of course true and I know it but then it slides into a thought more sinister If I don't retrain myself now, the rest of my year will be too slack to hold the things I want to hold. The things I want to achieve. A tendril like the parasitic vines choking the cempaka tree in front of our house, with the thin curlicue creepers that execute a grip stronger than I expect. My dreams infused with stressful situations that demand fixing, taunting me with illusions of frantic urgency. Already my own hand erasing the boundary I drew and redrew in all those answers I gave everybody else.
From left to right: Emperor cards from the Neo Tarot, Thoth, and Morgan Greer decks. (full image descriptions at the very end of the newsletter)
I've always experienced uneasiness and uncertainty around The Emperor. The Rider-Waite-Smith version of the card paints a brooding and forbidding figure. A patriarch and monarch (boo) with blood on his hands (hiss), even when they're manicured and washed, occupying a seat of power as a way to look down and upon governed, colonised subjects. As a queer brown woman, it's an easy image to project on, to throw my arms up against. Not an easy one to ingest. In the past my instinct has been to try and mask it with the feminine, a kind of glitter bomb attack — let me soften these edges into something I can understand, as a femme, as someone with feminine strengths trained into me.
But it doesn't quite work, binaries never do. The Emperor resists glitter. I fight with this card, and it's taken a while to understand that that's perhaps the pathway into understanding and relating to it. That this card makes me face things that aren't soft and I need that, I need hard, prickly, jagged textures. To come up against what I feel might break me, to wrestle with combativeness and aggression, my desire/desperation for control, with what it means to have authority — for myself and for those around me — because authority, I believe, isn't wielded in the vacuum of the self. It bleeds out. Some cards hold my hand, or stand beside me, or ask me to sit near them and to contemplate the view. The Emperor gets in my face, demands eye contact, forces me to use my hands, my muscles, my flesh, my breath. The Emperor doesn't treat me like I'm fragile, and forces me to push myself beyond that thought too, to risk myself, some pain, some hurt, to believe it's for a purpose.
A break to inhale and exhale, because I understand this can be triggering. It sounds like I'm describing a sword fight or a bar brawl, neither of which I've ever experienced, and which I have space and privilege to contemplate in the abstract. This energy may not be safe for everybody. If that is the case, I share this wonderful read on The Emperor by Jessica Dore: "The function of a boundary is to protect yourself, not to control others. If a boundary is geared toward personal peace and safety, not toward making anyone do anything, [and if] someone still has an issue with it, that’s a red flag. Exercise your sovereignty and remove yourself." Release any tightness within you anyway you need.
Here are some ways I have been contemplating The Emperor and the energy of this card in recent times:
A drawn pie chart with three segments: Control vs sovereignty, power over self vs. power over what to cultivate and Retreating from a kingdom I’ve built.
Part of the anxiety of these new years' days is this feeling of 'setting the right tone', that what I commit or don't commit to now will be where I will be in, say, September, as if the days don't move us like silt in a river, diffuse and liquid. One of my earliest readings of The Emperor came from my friend Kenzie (from 2016!) who said, "[To me, it's] structure without wiggle room, about caging yourself in with responsibility and without a thought to the human heart beating inside you." I feel I am failing myself both by denying myself the break I have been working towards and by frivolously frittering away the break through 'excessive' leisure. I have made myself my own villain, denying my own power like my power over my own time, the power of my skills and capabilities which will not rust from rest, the power of my human needs and the power of serving them (both now, and later when I am further recharged). If I am Emperor, and my dominion is my own mind, my own life, the landscape of my time and what I pay attention to — how do I exercise my rule, and perhaps more importantly, how do I shift the focus from me as an individual to the landscape I want to cultivate with my power?
Another part of the anxiety is the anxiety of giving up control. If I see power as intrinsic to all of us, as something we channel from various sources, then I see control as a means to shape and maintain that power. To feel at all times like you've got a handle on it, that it's in a shape you can wield and never lose. I've been saying no a lot in recent weeks. No to tarot readings, no to requests to meet, no to other people's projects, no to possible collaborations. These nos are all in the service of the things I want to say yes to, the landscape I want to cultivate, and I've had practice saying no prior to this recent streak, but it's still hard. I still fear that every no is a door closed forever, is the end of any further requests. It feels like retreating from a kingdom I've built (my reputation, my cache as someone appealing to work with and to include) and I fear losing what I've built. I fear being forgotten.
An emperor who rules forever is a dictator; control is power trapped with a choking grip. I've been reading up on indigenous fire management, as bushfires devastate Australia. Here and there over the past few years I've been thinking about older ways of being in society, of being in dialogue with our environment, of caretaking and governance outside of hierarchy. Of humankind's collective accountability as guardians of this world we live in. A tendril reaches out from those thoughts towards my domain as an individual.
If I step back from everything I'm known for, it doesn't reduce me. And what if turning away from things that no longer excite me or no longer feel right for where I am is a way to practice my capacity for growth and change? To understand that I have skins to shed and the capacity to grow and build and make new ones, that there are versions of me I have yet to meet that offer different things to the world? Here the Empress presses a light and meaningful touch on the shoulder of the Emperor. Here The Emperor steps down from their throne to kneel on the Earth and understand what grows beneath them, around them — with and without their control.
Possibly the last piece of all this is understanding my influence, and how I define 'influence', and how that matters in my relationships to others. It's been gratifying to receive inquiries for things, even when they are nos for me. It's gratifying to be sought! It's gratifying also to feel like you are making an impact. What's been interesting for me is shifting where I seem to think I'll find this gratification, because recently, it's been showing up more and more in my personal realm of relationships. Friends telling me, oh this thing you do / shared made me think about this in my own life and it made me do this. I tried the thing you suggested, and I liked it or it resonated with me. How you worded that made something clearer for me. When I was going through something hard, the way you showed up — for me and for yourself — helped move something forward.
I grapple with the desire to exert control over people as a means to feel secure and to feel superior. To have them behave in ways I deem as 'better' for them, according to metrics I dictate. To have them behave in ways I can predict, that don't cause me uncertainty and distress. To feel useful and powerful in my capability to offer productive advice, to offer support to improve their circumstances, make them feel stronger. To lay claim to their growth and flourishing as credit to my goodness, my efforts, my influence. When I give in to this I forget my sovereignty, and the sovereignty of people I love. I forget the power of me simply existing in this world, as one of many members of my community, I forget that when I cultivate my garden, I can encourage other things to grow, to take root, to be planted by other hands.
I carry a phrase with me, from horoscopes written by Naimonu James in December 2017: discipline creates spaciousness. I have repeated it to myself many many times since then, as a mantra. In a recent love letter, one of my best friends wrote to me: "Now I think maybe what I called power was meaning." Meaning is personal as well as collaborative, meaning is made in dialogue, meaning acknowledges we all hold power, and enmeshing that power to create bigger and better things creates bigger and better things. I grasp The Emperor's hands and I tell them, I want no dominions, no colonies. I do not want a fleet in my name, a throne, statues. I want to feel belonging wherever I stand, I want always to remember my immense power to create, to love, to connect, I want intimate, fierce self-knowledge, I want to always feel shoulder to shoulder with my fellow humans to feel our individual powers magnifiying our collective power to fight and care for the world and each other.
And if I've got to wrestle you to the ground, you cunning motherfucker, with your steely smirking eyes, if I've got to laugh through a tumble, through the breath being knocked out of me, and be reminded that I am a creature of blood and bone, that I have it in me to feel pain and pleasure and survive both, then come at me. Let's make it best 2 out of 3.
Go to this link to submit a question you want me to pull some cards for. I can’t guarantee I will answer all questions submitted but I will do my best. I am hoping to publish those short reads by end of January.
Marianne from Two Sides Tarot created a spread recently for exploring Emperor energy in your life; I haven’t tried it myself but I love the idea.
Previously, I wrote about the rituals I closed 2019 with. If you'd like to subscribe, click here. If you’ve been enjoying the newsletter and would like to support the work, here’s my tip jar. Thanks so much for reading.
Image descriptions of tarot cards featured: Neo: A short haired figure in fully white long sleeved top and long pants, their right palm outstretched with a yellow 7-pointed star floating above it, and their left arm leaned on a brown plinth behind a black ram with earthy pink horns. They are barefoot on a green surface and sitting on a purple plinth in front of a large red circle/sun and brown sky with wisps of lighter brown clouds. Thoth: Rendered all in shades of red, yellow, white and orange. A crowned monarch sitting with their right foot crossed over their left knee and looking to the left, a shield with a winged bird creature with two heads facing each other on the left and a kinda pissed off looking lamb/small sheep sitting mostly in shadow, bearing a small flag with a halo behind its head. Two long necked rams stare out from over each of the monarch’s shoulders. They hold a staff and a round item with a short cross on top in front of their body. Morgan Greer: A figure with a white hair and beard and a crown with an eagle head sitting on a red throne looking to the left. They are wearing a gold chest plate, red trousers, brown booths and a dark red cape clasped at the collar and thick gold cuffs at the wrists. In their right hand a gold staff topped with a cross and in the left hand a straight sword with a gold blade, and under that hand there is a statue of an eagle with their wings raised and also facing left.