As the world speeds back up, Sarah Maria Griffin’s monthly column considers the ghost of her former self, learning to say no, and the Seven of Pentacles
It’s late in the year, and I am thinking about the Seven of Pentacles in a cabin by a lake, in Cavan. As I let my eyes run through the Rider-Waite-Smith deck this morning, wondering which card I should talk to and talk about for this column, it was the earthy, material suite of Pentacles that called me. As winter rolls in – though today is an eerie 14 degrees, too warm for November – I feel myself taking stock of this year.[restrict]
This second plague year, this time of juddering transition, of cautious hope – how do we quantify it, while our heads are still spinning? I (potentially too regularly) find myself staring into my phone at photos from January 2020 and wondering where that time went, especially now that January 2022 is so close I can almost reach over December to touch it. I have been working in fits and starts since then, cobbling things together, my motivation annihilated, my focus non-existent without the stress of social expectation to draw my standards up.
I have been getting by, I have done a lot of writing and I have shot my aim towards the next stage of my life and things I would like to achieve. I have remained solvent. But as the world lifts its head towards a prescribed ‘normality’ in this late stage pandemic, I can feel pressure returning that I had been keeping at bay. I can feel the ghost of myself in 2019, addicted to work, exhausted but manic, placing her small hands on my shoulders and pushing down, ‘You’re not working hard enough,’ she says, ‘You’re too slow.’
The Seven of Pentacles, at a glance, is a card about perseverance. When I draw it in a spread for a querent, I say to them that though they are tired, they must keep going. I say to them that sevens are tricky, across the tarot – despite the number’s reputation for luck, in the story of the Minor Arcana that’s not really what they offer. The Seven of Swords represents a dishonesty, a theft – the Seven of Cups represents a wealth of choices but no ability to discern which are dangerous and which are delightful – and the Seven of Wands literally depicts a figure beating back people who are attacking them from out of frame. Sevens are not a sign of good fortune. They’re a sign of being in the thick of things, in the mess, in the tiring slog where you’re over the start of a situation but not really near enough to the end to feel relieved, or even hopeful. Eights bring the drama to the tarot and Sevens are, basically, exhausting.
In the Seven of Pentacles, our figure – you, me – is leaning on a farming tool, a sickle, a rake, an object of labour. Their head is rested heavily, sadly on their hands – their expression is dour, and they look hopelessly towards a great hedge that is all but overflowing with Pentacles. Golden discs. They look sick of it, to be honest. Like they’ve been working for so long that they can’t see the shine on the thing that they are harvesting. Like the bounty doesn’t look like a bounty anymore, it just looks like repetitive, draining labour. Like their ambition is dead. Like they’re over it. But they haven’t gone home. They’re just chipping away.
I realised something was wrong with me – like wrong with me – during a conference in Bantry in 2019. I had travelled the nine hours from home to talk on a panel with some other writers for an international cohort of teachers. I was to be put up in the hotel the conference was happening in, I got to spend a few days down in the gorgeous end-of-Ireland town of Bantry, where I’d never been before – but on the way there I became sick.
The details of how sick I was are, now, in retrospect, roaring alarm-bells, but I took some painkillers and kept going until my fever was so bad that I was sweating through my clothes. I was awake all night hallucinating in my bedroom – I was scared, but it wasn’t the first time I’d been sick at work, surely I could get through this and just go and talk and perform. Surely. Normally the sachets and the tablets worked. A glass of wine worked, or at least worked well enough for me to bluff my way through what needed to be done until I got to lie down again. I think back on how often I said to CB, ‘If I can just get through this week, I’ll be ok,’ and he would squeeze my hand, eyes worried. Then I would get through that week, and it would be followed by another week.
There was no saying ‘no’ at this point in my life. The trip to Bantry came at the tail end of a year of stupid ‘yeses’, countless occasions where I just took a palm full of tablets and had a box of smokes instead of a day off. The road that led me to Bantry was much longer than the train and the coach that got me there that weekend: years longer. I write a little about burning out, here and there, threading it through my nonfiction like a sub-plot, when it is actually in fact, the main story – a threshold I passed and cannot come back from. I was different afterwards: my brain, my body, what I want, how I want. That was not the first time I lay in a hotel room far from my home and was afraid: but when I finally found myself on my parents sofa a few days later, needing to hide with them until I came back to myself – I decided it would be the very last. I would never let it happen again.
That weekend in Bantry set me on a journey that I am still on. A different Arcana, full of different thresholds, different portals. But sometimes, I can hear her, the version of me who led herself to that hotel, calling me. Telling me I’ve gone soft. Telling me I’ve lost my fire, I’m lazy now, I’m not hungry enough, I couldn’t hack it, I’m incompetent, if this whole writing thing doesn’t work out? I’m the only one to blame.
And I place my tired head on the handle of my sickle and I look at the golden fruit on the hedgerow and I hear her and the ghost with the glass of hotel Merlot and Camel Blue in each hand doesn’t motivate me, not at all. She sounds lonely – she is, that. Bantry was two years ago in October. By November, that ghost had sought help. And she didn’t know the pandemic was coming, but she was at least slowing down by her own volition. Her voice in my memory though, is metallic and urgent. Afraid. That is what I hear under the guilt for slowing down. Fear.
But my old fear won’t make me regret electing sanity. It won’t make me regret stopping the chase and instead, chipping away at my work – but not being chipped away at, by my work.
Here at the end of the year I am slower than I used to be: or as slow as I always should have been, if I’d only let myself live – and that is how I intend to go on into my winter. One word by one word, one day by one day. One no, by one no. Grieve the missed opportunities as they pass, and celebrate the ones I have the capacity to take. Never tell people I’m ‘so busy,’ ever again – even if I am.
Though here in the frame of the Seven of Pentacles, the figure is hard at work – their life is not the sum of their labour. Their humanity is not their sickle. Their joy is not their Pentacles, least of all when they are this tired. I will not speed up just because the world around me is insisting I ‘girlboss’ my way into the late pandemic. I will stay placing my words down like seeds. I will feel the chill of that old ghost and I’ll remember that she’s only an echo. She’s free now.