16 - tower (3/10)
Updated: Mar 31
16 - tower
point-of-no-return; destruction; trauma; rupture; rapture
how are you feeling right now?
It is Wednesday, March 10, 2021, and I have hit my pandemic breaking point. I have gone numb from the constant, anxious gnawing in my stomach and unending glow of my laptop screen. It is 11:58am, and these few sentences have taken the entire morning to spit onto the page. During Fall Coven, we spent much of our time holding open space for our varied pandemic emotions, and there was a clear downward trajectory in energy and mood as the weeks of Zoom school passed. This semester, the trajectory has continued to the point of ending rehearsals early whenever possible; some nights we have enough energy for check-ins and housekeeping, nothing more. I for one am no stranger to writer’s block, and I expected the written portion of my thesis to be a thorny process – but I had no idea the exhaustion of quarantine writer’s block, nor how desperately I need ambient noise and sunshine to even feel creative. I decided to scrape away at a Tower essay today, because if my writing ends up resembling a dumpster fire, it will at least resemble the card.
update: as of march 30, i am feeling so much better. blessed be sunshine, friendship, and psychiatric drugs.
The Tower is perhaps the most feared of the 78 tarot cards: to pull The Tower is to see people falling, perhaps jumping to their deaths as a great stone structure crumbles to its very foundation. It is the painful demolishing of what-was. Pandemic times are full of Tower energy; I am writing from this very feeling of apocalyptic dread, and it is a sensation that I'm sure any reader who lived through 2020-21 can recognize. COVEN-19, by nature of time itself, is therefore born out of this Tower energy, so I feel compelled to try to understand what it means to make art in traumatic times. As I look at the Tower card for inspiration, however, it strikes me that we carry Tower energy into Coven space, but the space itself is one of breath and calm. I am not particularly interested in the Tower itself, but rather its aftermaths: when we attempt to cultivate a space that offers respite from violence, where are the seepages? How do the Tower's tremors reverberate through Coven process? How are we haunted by trauma, and what should we do with the ghosts?
hauntings, liminality, inertia
After I proposed COVEN-19: Magicks for Unprecedented Times last summer, Harley asked this brilliant dramaturgical question: “[I] wondered whether COVEN-19 as a lead title (disconnected from any blurb) actually does the opposite of your intention – it makes it sound like it is actually ABOUT the pandemic, or commenting on it. The wit works for those who already know what the project is about. People may even misread it and go running.”
I had not, admittedly, given much meaning-making thought to this title prior to Harley’s input – I remember the pun flying into my head while on a sunshiny late-August walk, then texting the idea off to a few close friends who I thought could use a small chuckle. This email suddenly threw my thesis project into necessary connection with the trauma-stricken world. I was not concerned about pandemic-concerned patrons mistakenly attending the show, but rather about the ethics of sloppily engaging with politics: what right had I, in proposing an MFA thesis project about witchcraft, to appropriate the name of a disease that had already killed thousands? I was also proposing COVEN-19 in the performative afterglow of participating in weeks of Black Lives Matter protests; like many white allies, I was slipping back into privileged complacency, racial injustice fading into the background as I devoted my energies to preparing for a new semester. “Coven-19” and “unprecedented times” certainly implied a connection to the political here-and-now: would this signal toward social justice ring hollow if the devising process did not ultimately center such themes?
Obviously, we kept the title. And while I continually return to these questions about politicization, I quickly came to see COVEN-19: Magicks for Unprecedented Times less as a signifier of the present than as a haunting of the recent past and lost potentialities. Grief informs all of our Coven work: even in moments of meme-induced hilarity, we are haunted by the before-times, friendship hugs, cancelled weddings and birthdays, certainly the literal ghostliness of lives lost in the pandemic. We chose not to commune with spirits of the deceased for our Samhain ritual, but the ghosts were there.
When I think about hauntings, I think about the conversation I had with performance artist and scholar Eva Margarita (art ancestor) this January. Eva's work explores conjuring, which she defines as "a purposeful subversion of energy... melding of spiritual, scholarly, and creative realms in order to best unsettle whatever is happening in that moment." She describes Salt Fat Ash Heat, a 12-hour performance of cooking with her father’s ashes:
I pulled the bone pieces out of the urn, then I ground the ashes in a molcajete and with a mortar that was passed down from my grandmother. I cooked three dishes and then I ate my father. The dishes that I made were tamales, rice and beans, and frites, which were some of the last three meals that he asked me to cook for him. I took this endo-cannibalistic approach, which is where you when you digest or eat someone from your own community, ideally your immediate family or your immediate community. It was cathartic. I cried a lot. But it was also to unsettle that grief, to let folks know that this is done with love. In the same way that life pounded this man down, I pounded it down with love. I pounded it down and I made something that I knew he would have liked. By eating it, it's subverting this energy, shifting it; instead of being for a loss, I let this be about transition. I let this be about processing, quite literally -- by the body processing it, I say that this grief no longer has that same power over me. I now have power over it.
In this act of conjuring, trauma is transformed via a commingling of past and present energies. The unsettling occurs through an active entanglement with grief, through working through and using it to manifest meaning. Over the past year, I have come to understand trauma as a change-making event that results in a Before and After; Bessel van der Kolk says that “the nature of traumatic experience is that the brain doesn’t allow a story to be created” (Shapiro 165). Eva brings Before and After together by conjuring a narrative. Rather than a static thing that happened and must be overcome, grief becomes a happening with transformative, energetic potential. Rather than remaining stuck in the liminal space between death and healing, Eva moves through liminality, engaging this in-between state so that it becomes a story of feeling powerful rather than powerless.
The naming of COVEN-19: Or, Magicks for Unprecedented Times is, perhaps, a conjuring. I do not want to directly compare the Coven’s devising process to durational, hyper-vulnerable performance art – but the narrative of Eva’s transmutation offers an aptly mystical framing for me to consider the relationship between trauma and liminality. COVEN-19 is not directly about the global pandemic, but by invoking COVID-19 in our very name, we are actively building it into our artistic story. We are grieving the Before-Time and grasping for a safe After-Time, convening In-Between; in Zoom school but not really in school; not physically together but digitally present; waiting, holding our breaths, going through the motions of academic normalcy while losing our goddam minds. In the digital waiting space of Coven rehearsal, we are haunted by grief -- but by refusing to excorsize the ghosts, even inviting them into our space with the title of COVEN-19, we are writing them into our story -- and stories have endings. Naming and unsettling grief empowers us to move through the seemingly eternal liminal space of lockdown. Conjuring is an act of inertia through Tower space, even if the next card -- the Star -- is very far away.
how are you feeling right now? what do you need?
before drawing another card, take a break to take care of yourself. drink some water, grab a snack, take a deep breath, stretch, cry...
 My partner and I are quarantining in a subbasement apartment, so natural light is a rare luxury  particularly given that we are predominantly white coven: how much does the privilege of being unpolitical impact what we choose to research and create?