In the Beginning There Was Anxiety: The Emotional Flashcards Creation Story

I have been working on creating a set of tarot cards, and alternative interpretation of the major arcana. This has essentially been a process for me to work through the stress and confusion I began to experience during March of 2020, as the threat of the global Covid-19 pandemic became a reality. I found I was unable to focus on the creative work I had before me at the time, which had created a kind of Catch-22 loop: I was stressed and anxious, and needed to spend time on creative projects to engage with the healing flow state of creativity, but I was too stressed and anxious to focus enough to engage with the healing flow state of creativity. We were all there, in that dog-chasing-tail reality, in one way or another. Even now, over a year  later it still lingers.

What I found was that I was able to work out some of this stressful creative conundrum by making small paintings about what I was feeling. I had done two or three of these paintings earlier, which involved identifying a feeling I was experiencing, naming it, and then allowing an image to come into my mind to illustrate the feeling. Since my early pandemic experience was all about these types of raw emotions, I started working again in this way, without any specific plan, creating a series of images I referred to collectively as Emotional Flashcards. Instead of learning my multiplication tables as I had as a child, I thought I could use these flashcards to learn how to navigate my emotions.

Once a few of these images gathered together as finished paintings, I started noticing some similarity in the themes of my paintings with the archetypes present in the major arcana of the tarot. These little forays into my subconscious were spontaneously coalescing themselves into a set of tarot majors while I was busy soothing myself with thoughts of color and line and watercolor effects. With this realization, I made a thin outline of a plan, careful to avoid left-braining myself away from what was magical about this process. I then set about pulling the remaining paintings out of the dark corners of my emotional mind to form an alternative take on the themes of the tarot.

This project was an enormous help for me – the combination of exploring and naming my feelings, the creative outlet, and the process of embodying the archetypes of the tarot – all helped me manage the many stresses of the pandemic. The project gave me a grounding I needed, and an outlet for processing some of my feelings about this global tragedy.

I painted these images as they came to me, in a range of styles and a variety of materials. Collectively, they are varied and eclectic, but in the interest of just letting this series of paintings emerge I allowed each image to find its own visual representation rather than worrying about creating a collection of stylistically similar images. This is something completely out of my comfort zone, but the pandemic essentially eroded any ideas I had about what I considered my comfort zone, so it was easier to just let this set of images have its way.

These cards have helped me, so maybe they will help you too. In that hope, I am working now to turn these images into an actual usable deck of cards, printed on traditional tarot card stock. As I work through the logistics and all the clearly left-brained details that this involves, I thought it would be nice to share this story of all the right-brain feelings that brought this project into being.

It turns out, then, that this is a creation story, and it starts with:  “In the beginning there was anxiety . . .” But happily, it doesn’t end that way.

Science Insusceptible

I had an experience with my tarot cards recently that brought me back to myself.

I was in a state of general undefined discontent and decided to pull a few cards to see if it would help me understand what was at the heart of my feelings. I laid out three cards, was not initially seeing anything that looked compelling, was also annoyed that the cards had not immediately responded to my petulant needs, and put them away without reading them. My sour mood prevailed.

The next morning, I decided I should give the cards another try. Here is my method: I always leave the cards from a previous reading face-up on top of the deck when I put it away. Before I begin to shuffle for a new reading, I carefully tuck those cards back into the deck, one at a time, more or less evenly spaced throughout the deck. I spend some time shuffling the deck, and then I cut the deck, allowing the surface tension of the cards to find the right place for the division. The bottom half of the deck becomes the top, and I pull cards one at a time from the top of this shuffled deck.

In the back of my mind, the statistical potential for the randomization of a deck of 78 cards is always present in my approach to pulling cards. My methods are not special, but I feel the need to be thorough enough to reassure the Analytical Monster that lurks in the back of my head that I have sufficiently randomized the deck. With the Monster thus satisfied, I can allow the rest of my mind the freedom to embrace the magic of the moment as it unfolds.

That morning I did this, and shuffled the deck while I formed a similar question in my mind as the night before.

I pulled three cards. The first two cards were two of the exact same cards I had pulled the night before, but the third card was different. This coincidence got my attention, and I carefully read about the three cards in front of me. I felt the message of the third card was not particularly clear so I decided to pull an additional card to clarify the meaning. I shuffled the deck again, cut it, and pulled a single card from the top of the deck – I was looking at the third card I had pulled from the night before. I had pulled four cards from a completely randomized set of 78, and all three of the cards from the previous night were present.

I love science, but let’s face it, Isaac Newton kind of ruined things. I am with William Blake in this view, and have consciously worked to to try and remove the subtle and ever-present effects of ‘Newton’s Sleep’ from my thinking as best I can. Even so, the soulless aspects of single thinking has saturated western culture, and I am not immune from its influence. It feeds the Analytical Monster, and over time wears me down until I welcome it into the driver’s seat. This is where I was when I sat down to do the reading the second time, and then I pulled the same cards again. It is statistically impossible that, without interference, the cards that were carefully spaced throughout the deck could be shuffled back into the same order again, let alone after randomizing the deck a second time. The bus suddenly came to a screeching halt, and I pitched the Analytical Monster to the curb. How refreshing! I was then able to read the message that I needed to receive, and connect with the essential part of my self. My sour mood was eradicated.

This experience with the cards is the definition of Jung’s theory of synchronicity – acausal coincidence, but with meaning. The more formal definition of the term is “the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.” How ever you describe it, it means there is more at work in the world than meets the Newtonian standard.

The same device – a careful shuffling method – employed as a methodical process to remove the possibility of a coincidental occurrence of a repeated pattern, was also the pathway to liberating the deep spiritual experience of synchronicity. The thought process that was working to strangle magic also allowed for it to emerge in an even more potent and meaningful way.

Of this, Jung says: “Natural laws are statistical truths, which means that they are completely valid only when we are dealing with macrophysical quantities.” This is Newton’s world – apples fall from trees, planets swing through space in predictable patterns, thoughts follows a linear process. Jung continues: “In the realm of very small quantities prediction become uncertain, if not impossible, because very small quantities no longer behave in accordance with the known natural laws.” Now we are dealing with the realm of quantum physics – where spooky interaction at a distance defines the relationships of meaningful coincidence. Jung goes on to say: “Every answer of nature is therefore more or less influenced by the kind of questions asked, and the result is always a hybrid product.” What better definition is there of the experience of reading tarot cards than this?

The microcosm is the macrocosm – a fractal hybrid where three symbollic images printed on cards can come together and constellate into a larger pattern of meaning – uncertain, unpredictable, but beautifully orchestrated by the power and energy of a questioning mind.

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The quotes above come from the Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 8 – Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, paragraphs 818 and 821.

The Tale of the Tail of the Bear

Cauda Ursa is Latin for “tail of the bear” (Cauda Ursa Minoris). It is an old way of referring to the last star in the constellation Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. That star, at the end of a strangely elongated tail (for a bear) is more commonly known as Polaris – the North Star – and it has been guiding us for as long as we humans have looked to the sky.

Like many folks, my fondness for the Little Bear started as a young child. It’s the first constellation most of us learn to find in the sky, close to its mother, comforting to see. It is small and consistent, swirling around the North Star as the year progresses, but always there to be found.

It has also consistently made its way into my creative work over the years, in paintings and wood carvings, the stars of the constellation and the bear itself. When it came time to decide on a name for this website it seemed like a natural fit.

It is easy as an artist to lose one’s way, to go down the well trodden lane instead of finding your own quiet pathway. A creative life is a rewarding life, but also an easily complicated one, and who among us wouldn’t benefit from having a guiding star?

Cauda Ursa is that star for me, and I will endeavor to follow where the creative work needs me to go – through the night sky, instructed by dreams, accompanied by my constellated companions.