People sometimes ask why I left my Ph.D. program. I’ve a few answers:
After participating in labor protests in Oaxaca, I found it difficult to think and write about labor — for other people who think and write about labor.
After following Zapatistas back to Chiapas, my clever-esque theories about Subcomandante Marcos’s communiqués seemed too far removed from the people, place, and politics I’d been thinking about. A few weeks in the jungle and my academic work paled into little more than word play.
I could have studied something else. It was a Literature program. I could have read novels.
But despite the brilliant books and people I found amongst the intelligentsia, I was kind of lonely there.
Perhaps most importantly, it was in the cards. Before leaving Mexico, I visited friends in San Miguel de Allende who fed me posole and vino tinto, and read my tarot.
Françoise and Theron have a magic about them. They’re strikingly beautiful. The graceful pair look like they stepped out of their mother’s paintings and into conversation with admiring passersby. They’re worldly. These almost-American, almost-Mexican sisters with French names talk easily of Balinese trading, African lions, world histories, epic literatures and loves and lipsticks. And they’re insightful. Like their intuitive mother they read people, stars, books, and cards.
When I turned over The Tower, I didn’t need the sisters surrounding me to explain that I was in for revelation. I’d just come from Oaxaca, a few summers before annual protests there made national news. Where naked indigenous children played in their mothers’ skirts while an adjacent restaurant served pricy 30-ingredient pollo con mole negro to tourists. Where protestors mourned los desaparecidos while a sidewalk cafe’s “Let It Be” musak drifted across the zócalo. The paramilitaries watched, waiting for the (governor’s?) command. I’d already encountered unsettling revelation.
But when I turned over The Tower, there I was. The revelation was as personal as it was political. I saw myself pictured on the card, in scholar’s robes, tumbling from the ivory tower.
So I jumped.
Not too far. I didn’t clear campus.
I’m still teaching, still thinking. But I’m no longer climbing the ivory tower. Instead, I’m trying to bring the tarot’s Tower into the classroom. Because revelation, especially the kind that makes us uncomfortable if not fearful or affronted, is the kind of experiential learning that makes us better people, who make up better societies. To make for both, existing structures must be renovated. Or struck by lightening, set on fire, and evacuated (see above illustrative tarot card).
There’s plenty of revelation to go around. Here in the United States, too, we’ve alarming social and economic inequality. Malnutrition and gluttony battle it out amongst our citizenry. Caught up in a commodity culture, we labor long and hard to replace our fast-failing appliances, fashions, and gadgets. We hope our hearts – and their replacement parts, which we hope are better made than our planned obsolescent cell phones – hold out until retirement.
At least most of us hope to eat well and, in all, survive the cycle of spending and earning. A very few worry less: 10% of our citizens take home more than half of our country’s income. That’s not a gap between the rich and everyone else. It’s an abyss. Even the university bows to wealth disparity, as adjunct instructors earn a few thousand dollars for teaching courses while administrators enjoy millions.
The wage gap here in the U.S. is as abysmal as corporate control of our media and even our bodies. We’re not so unlike Southeastern Mexico. Even our SWAT teams begin to resemble the paramilitaries deployed by local governments there.
All of this is The Tower: a reminder of our individual and societal “ambitions built on false premises.” Examining cultural constructs in the classroom just might be the best way to overcome our awe of these dubious structures and initiate change.
Burn, baby, burn. I’ll jump.