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“Removing the habit of being spectators of other people’s flawless juggling acts helps.” 

By September 25, 2021No Comments

In her monthly tarot column, Sarah Maria Griffin muses on stepping back from performative busyness and valuing apprenticeship over mastery 


I have been thinking, this strange autumn, about the two of Pentacles. Not least because it has come up in a handful of readings I have given to other people, lately – not least because I, like the figure who balances two round gold coins in each palm, have my hands full. Part of the power of the tarot is that it reflects everything that we go through all of the time: the seventy eight cards inhabit us, always, as fractals of the big story of being alive. This goes for the small cards, as well as the big. 

The two of Pentacles is the apprentice card. In Pamela Coleman-Smith’s illustration, it depicts a well-dressed young person, a pentacle in each hand, with the symbol for infinity bound around them. The figure is unfooted, a little wobbly – engaged in a juggling act, rather than the calm of a balancing act. They are only learning. Only just beginning, and yet they are kind of… all over the place. Their hands are full. They seem, frankly, overwhelmed.

I am not sure that I meet many people, or have met many people, even before the pandemic, who weren’t feeling overwhelmed at any given moment. It was an inevitable mark in any conversation: if you don’t say it, I’m going to say it. Even the coolest amongst us, with a little curiosity and prodding will admit to feeling like they have too much on, or the weight of eyes and expectations on them. Some will tell you about it before even making small-talk: it erupts. I am so busy. I have so much on. Swamped. 

This could be the age I’m at, to be honest. The big figuring it out years. Early 30s, surrounded by brand new mothers, by people stepping into the pressure and vibrancy of serious careers, people reckoning with housing, with illness, with family responsibility – with the reality of life that seemed somehow imperceptible during our twenties. That, or back then we weren’t largely paying attention to the things that have now arrived into our full focus. That, or social media and the surveillance system we place ourselves into voluntarily wasn’t that much of a thing back then. Either of these things – or neither – could be true. I know from my peer group, from my friends, that no matter whether they are just embarking on a new phase in their life, or achieving mastery – they still feel like they have no hands to spare. I know this feeling myself.

This summer, I spent three months meticulously rewriting a novel I had been working on, on and off, for four years. This was no small task. I took each chapter out of the primary document, rewrote it, fixed it, noted continuity factors – mostly by hand – and placed them one by one into a new document, which eventually comprised the rewrite. This is not an unusual task, by any means. Nor is it one I was doing for the first time. However it occupied almost all of my brain, both my hands. I was unsteady. I felt, staring down the Word document day after day, like I had no idea what I was doing. Most of the time, when I am writing, I feel that way. Eventually, an entire A4 pad of pastel pink paper and 25,000 extra words later, the draft was done, and sent to my agent, and I returned to the quiet horror of waiting to see what happens next. 

The thing about doing work like this is that there’s no daily reward for it. There’s only the dig. Only the document. I posted a little more often about my writing than I regularly would on social media, just to give myself a sense of connection: but I am always brutally aware that the performance of ‘artistry’ on social media does not always connect itself to actual artistry. I also am trying to let go of performances of ‘busyness’ – as though having my hands full gives my life meaning, when it does not. It is my usual state, certainly, but it is not what my life is about. For several years I mistook a busy life for a meaningful one, and made myself very unwell in the process. Overwhelmed does not equal fulfilled. 

I also believe that too aggressively performing said overwhelmedness, either in person or on social media, has the potential to be contagious. I know I am filled, from time to time, with a deep sense of shame when I look at the social media of people who are further ahead than I am – or who are adept at posting about their work life in a way that makes it seem more glamorous than I know it actually is. I have tried to combat this shame with matching this level of posting, myself. Stepping into a digital stage, my hands full of discs, a juggler. 

Choosing to not contribute to that climate is active. Not answering every ‘How are you?’ with ‘Busy,’ is active, too. Even if that’s true. Even when ‘busy’ means ‘drowning’ which means ‘please help’. I am practicing measuring that out. Choosing when to say it. Choosing not to use the discs in both of my hands as a weapon: something that keeps me apart from others because I am so busy. Because I am so swamped.

I think a part of managing overwhelmedness is, aside from refusing to perform it or conflating it with virtue, is also solved in the two of Pentacles. Defeating the urge to become expert quickly, setting personal expectations of achievement or labour too high for reasons of status and recognition rather than authentic reward – placing ourselves in the two. In the beginning. Ten is completion, right? The court, the king, the queen, that’s where other problems lie. Setting ourselves down on the ground, in humility, helps. Lowering our expectations of ourselves helps. Removing the audience, removing the habit of being spectators of other people’s flawless juggling acts, helps. 

Something I’ve gotten used to doing in the last couple of years is admitting that I am a slow learner. The lie I told over and over again on CVs throughout my twenties, that I am quickly adaptable, I learn quickly – rings even more hollow with time. It takes me ages to get my head around things: the novel I just rewrote is my fifth book and I am still floundering at how the hell I’m supposed to carve 100,000 words into a reality. This isn’t imposter syndrome. I literally know I’m a writer: I’m writing right now. It’s more about getting my head – slowly- around the idea that being excellent at working – or anything else – isn’t the be all and end all. That apprenticeship is potentially more satisfying than any notion of mastery. That my hands might be full, but they feel less full if I’m not holding a bunch of discs and trying to look cool and accomplished at the same time. I’m just holding a bunch of discs, you know? Maybe I drop one. Maybe I drop them both. That’s fine. I’ll pick them up, or get new discs. If a disc falls in the wood and nobody’s around to like a picture of it on Instagram, did anyone really fail here?

Like all of my readings of the tarot here, if you are handling too many discs, I feel you. If you are not enjoying the sense of apprenticeship when you have the experience of a master, I feel you too. I don’t believe the tarot offers answers, and I never have. More, I believe it offers  queries back to the person who asks questions of it, so I leave you here with questions. How can we reconcile notions of busyness and success with our own wellbeing – does a full life equal a life where our hands are never empty? How can we place down the discs without wondering if the whole balance of the world will fall off once our hands are empty? How can we accept a sense of beginner-ness as a positive, rather than a negative – how can we look at the start of a story and think, with excitement, that we have such a long way to go?