When I was born, the sun was traveling through Sagittarius and the constellation of Cancer was resting on the eastern horizon. Sagittarius carries the archetype of the expansive traveller, the cosmic pilgrim, the itinerent philosopher, the fiery explorer at the edge of human experience. Cancer is the moon mother, the nurturing cave at the bottom of the ocean, the loving presence who discovers the depth of human feeling from the comfort of a soft bed. Together, in me, they manifest as dancing alone at the ocean’s edge at sunset. In me they manifest as cooking with bold flavors and colors and techniques for the people I love. And in me they manifest as traveling the world just to find quiet places to sit down and read. This post is the first in a series of essays about the books I keep with me as I explore this world and what it means to be alive.
Earlier today I posted on my instagram a little bit about my relationships with books. I have an intuitive practice which carries the old world name of Bibliomancy, which historically has referred to telling the future by reading random pages from a book, particularly the bible. Bibliomancy is a really fun word to say, and it describes closely enough what I do. How I practice it is closely related to how I use other forms of divination like astrology and the tarot. I don’t seek to read the future, but to drop deeper into the present moment.
I began this practice before I knew there was a name for it. I had this little yellow book of poetry from my mother which came to me when I needed it more than anything. It’s a collection of poems from throughout time and around the world, edited by Roger Housden. It’s called, Risking Everything. When it came to me, I found myself in the midst of some of the biggest and most frightening life decisions I had ever had to make, and it was one of my most supportive friends when I felt like I couldn’t turn to anyone else.
In the introduction, Housden opens with this:
“Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?“
- Mary Oliver
Have you ever longed for a life in which every last part of you is entirely used up? Have you ever followed up that longing? Taken a step back from the known in your life and found yourself falling, falling, yet with the irrational uncertainty that the world is more right with you than it has ever been? Or dared to take a step forward and down into the known and humdrum details of your daily existence and suddenly found there a fullness of love and meaning as rich in its own way as others may know only through wild adventures?
The poems in this book call us to take that step.
What a beautiful beginning, and how necessary this message, and the poems that follow were. I was 23 years old and had recently made some of the hardest and bravest decisions of my life. Many close relationships were lost during that time, but I had gained a closer relationship with myself because of it. I spent that semester preparing for my thesis on Buddhist women’s activism and I applied for a grant to travel to Indonesia for the Sakyadhita International conference, a gatherings for and by incredible Buddhist women. I learned a lot on my travels through the Indonesian islands of Java and Flores, and I kept this book with me the entire time. It was this book that taught me that we can find the deepest insights if we stop trying to do things right. This book showed me the wisdom of opening to a random page, and allowing the poem that is speaking to me to wash over me, like light, like water, like honey.
This book taught me to trust myself.
Absentminded as I am, the precious things that I travel with often disappear for a time. Left at a teacher’s home, driven across the state in a friend’s car, sometimes I’ve been months without this book, but it always returns to me in the perfect moment.
The longest absence was in the fall/winter of 2016, when I was grieving and struggling through the completion of a relationship that had passed its full expression. I longed for the book during that time to get me through my emotional turmoil, but I couldn’t remember where I had left it months ago. That year I co-hosted a New Years Eve party with my closest magical sister, and the book was regifted to me; it was left behind at the end of a psychedelic dinner party all the way back in October.
That night was the last night of my grieving. It was the night I met the person I am now going to marry.
The following day was a garden party, and I mark the beginning of our relationship as the moment I asked, “Do you mind if I sit near you and read poetry out loud?“ and he welcomed me into his space with open hearted enthusiasm. The poem I opened to first was a devotional poem to the dark lord Krishna by the mystical poet Mirabai. This poem, this devotion, this longing for God that emerged in our first meeting has echoed through the values and the service of our relationship.
This book carries many of my stories. I’ve brought it with me to the burned remains of Notre Dame, to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. I’ve brought it with me to my father’s hospital bed and into my mother’s garden both more times than I can count.
As you can see, it’s worn and tattered. I probably should mend it or stop taking it with me into the wilderness or on airplanes. But I love decay as much as I love life, and perhaps the next incarnation of this old stack of pulp and ink will be on canvasses, in shadowboxes. Perhaps I’ll record a reading of every poem and save them for my grandchildren. I don’t know what will become of this book, but I know that I have become because of it.