Strength Without Hands to Smite: My ‘Strength’ Year

I had the above quote hand written on marigold construction paper, cut out, and sealed with tape on the cover of my first real “writer’s notebook.” I’ve never read the rest of the poem (or is it a ballad?). I saw the quote in a Vampire RPG book that I never actually learned how to play, but I loved the quote immediately. I think part of why I never read the rest of the ballad is because I was afraid it would suck, or the context would take away some of deep resonance of these four lines—at least the resonance they have inside of me.

I used that notebook all throughout high school. It was a Five Star 5 subject notebook, and I used it for everything I did in school that was absolutely not related to school work: snippets from my novels in progress, tortured/inspired poetry, drugged out poetry, doodles, sketches, lists, recording quotes from people that felt mind-blowing (or just hilarious) at the time, recording favorite song lyrics, drafting spells. You know, the usual teenage private artsy notebook stuff. But I also haven’t seen it in years, and haven’t really thought about that quote in years. But when I decided now was the time to write about my Strength (tarot card) year and well I suppose I need a title for the blog post, that was the first thing that came to mind (after all, my arms are not going to be capable of anything event remotely close to smiting for quite a while…har har har). I’ll be honest, I don’t really know how the quote relates to the rest of what I’m about to write, but let’s see what happens!

Rider Waite Smith deck

2020 was, more or less for me, my Strength year. (As I say in My Chariot Year, “if you’re unfamiliar with what this means, think: numerology and tarot had a baby then Google ‘what’s my tarot card personal year.’”) I’m not sure if I feel like this is laughable because of how accurate it was, or because of how totally powerless I felt most of the time, but it sure was…something.

The Strength card is often depicted as a woman with a lion or lion-like beast. She’s generally shown to be overpowering the lion in some way, gently or otherwise. Usually she has her hands near its mouth, or around its neck, or she’s riding it. In recent years, I’ve seen a lot of decks that just have a woman and a lion together, like witch and familiar or lady and (big) cat, sometimes even straight up cuddling, and while that’s a valid take on the card I guess, I feel like it lacks the nuance of the older versions of the card. The Strength card has always been about the patient taming of a wild, dangerous creature, not just the idealized force of a wild woman. It’s a process, an intentional mindset, not just a rad symbol for female empowerment.

Maybe this is why I love the Prisma Visions Tarot deck‘s version of Strength. It’s not a gentle, nurturing woman taming a big ol’ kitty cat. It’s a shadowy figure moving through a field of roaring lions; the figure is both larger than and out-numbered by them. Is the figure confident or scared? Is it enormous or are the lions tiny? The lions are sprouting up like actual weeds, but they don’t appear to be any less fearsome for their foliage-like presentation.

To me, this card speaks to being grounded in the center of chaos. While the Chariot card (which comes directly before Strength) is about our willpower, our “make it so!” attitude, the Strength card is about an everlasting, (see the infinity symbol?) ever-present inner power, and about knowing you can face and survive the obstacles life will throw at you. I did not think I had that strength this year for the most part, and yet I was gingerly walking through my own unending field of beasts. No matter how secure I have been financially during the pandemic or how relatively isolated I have been able to stay from the virus, I was very mysteriously sick and getting progressively sicker, with nary an explanation in sight. This had gone on long enough with zero explanations from medical professionals that I had resigned myself to probably dying in my sleep from whatever was sucking the life out of my body. Everything I thought I knew about how my body was supposed to function and heal was turning out not to be true, and I hated my body. I hated that, from what I could tell, it was betraying me for no apparent reason.

Also, still, the pandemic.

In a lot of ways, though, the pandemic was good for me. I got to start working from home, which let me sleep on my lunch break, eat more nutritious meals more easily, and for a while I didn’t have to deal with phone calls at all. I had to organize my life in a way that minimized going out among other human beings, which is *chef’s kiss* for an introvert (to a point). I began to see/it was shown to me who my friends really were. I bought a hammock. I stopped pushing myself in almost every single way possible. I was tired, I was stressed, I felt like I was dying. I needed to rest. I literally could not push myself because the slightest push meant I would be laid up, out of breath with my heart hammering at the slightest notion of exertion, weak as a wee babby, aching and sore for weeks. So I was still mad at my body for deciding to betray me, but I was also held hostage by it, and knew enough to try to work with it instead of against it.

Of course, that still took strength. To say to a productivity-based meritocracy of a world “fuck you, I’m chilling in my hammock” instead of pushing myself; to identify that toxic, terrible, horrible, no good very bad core belief, that I am worthless without productivity; I must push and grind and will myself into the vision of who and what I want to be…to identify it, and finally truly disagree with it, and finally, finally, say NO to it—it was hard. It still is very hard. (I got myself exhausted the other day because I’ve been feeling better since starting my mycotoxicosis treatment, so I decided to do some very gentle stair-based exercises from PT back in the day, and overdid it with only 10 fucking reps.)

The strength I showed in 2020 was not through willing myself to do anything. (Willpower? More like will not.) My strength emerged in being willing to stand still (or in the case of the hammock, swing still). I let go of the need to base my value on anything other than my inherent worthiness. Even in my limited capacity to function, no matter how mad I was at my body, I still knew I deserved to live a life that would reduce my suffering, not increase it. It’s still a challenge every single day, but I literally have no other choice.

So is that strength, or resignation? Acceptance? I don’t know. But I’m more comfortable with not knowing than I ever have been. And I’m more confident in the belief that I am worthy of a life that doesn’t increase my suffering.

I am also in the process of apologizing to my body since I’ve realized that it actually was taking care of me the only way it could, and remarkably well under the circumstances. It’s helped me realize that no body every just betrays you. Bodies, like the rest of what makes a human, are always doing the best they can at any given point in time. I am so fucking lucky that I have an opportunity to heal and maybe “get back to normal,” but my new normal will be forever changed, because I have forever changed in how I see myself and how I see the world.

But I did what the card says: I found that inner, infinite well of strength that allowed me to survive life’s obstacles. I’m not sure about lions or taming or anything like that, but I endured, and I think I endured pretty damn well through job uncertainty, an ongoing pandemic, other personal crises, and my own quickly declining health. Even writing this now, it sounds irresponsible to my brain—You “endured”? Why didn’t you TRY HARDER?—but I’m wise enough now to tell that part of my brain, I appreciate that you want the best for me, but that’s really not how we go about getting it, so please STFU.

I’m moving into my Hermit year now, but there’s still some overlap with Strength. Part of that energy, I have found, is finding the strength to unearth the truth about my authentic and how I relate to other people—how what I have always thought of as my intense empathy and loyalty for other people has also been a really great way to make excuses for other people’s behavior and avoid confrontations. How I have given many people I love a pass on how they’ve treated me because I knew they were hurting, and I happen to be great at enduring pain/putting other people’s needs ahead of mine. I don’t confront people when they do things that I think are disrespectful because I don’t want to hurt them, but I heard a really good take on this viewpoint the other day: in these situations, someone is already hurt, and that person is you. If setting a healthy boundary hurts or offends the other person, that’s unfortunate and maybe even sad, but it’s not something you should feel guilty about. You must be willing to show up for yourself. You cannot live a healthy life and you cannot grow healthy relationships if those relationships are based on letting people constantly violate your boundaries.

Another thing I saw floating on the interwebs recently that hit home as a person who has a very hard time letting people go (even if they repeatedly hurt me) because of stubborn loyalty (and low self worth): “…my love is unconditional but your presence in my life is not. The moment that you prove that your value of me does not measure up to my sense of self worth, I’ll have no problem unconditionally loving the memory of you.” Well, my sense of self worth has increased quite a lot this past year, so the folks who aren’t going to meet me there can see themselves out. Insert shrug emoji.

This concept terrifies me, of course. I’m getting nervous sweats just thinking about it—oh gods what if I hurt someone by telling them they hurt me???—but at the same time…it’s time. It’s time to stop talking to myself like I don’t matter or my feelings aren’t as important as those of other people.

Weirdly, I know this sudden clarity (the topic is something I’ve been circling around in therapy for ages) is directly tied to my diagnosis/validation of my experience of being extremely fucking ill, but I haven’t parsed out exactly how yet. That’s okay.

So what about that quote with all its ironies and opposites? I think it’s just all…truth. All real things, existing in an intangible place—the place of experience, and therefore reality. And that’s what’s been coming into focus for me, more and more, as I work through my endless internalized bullshit: my experience is real, and valid, and true. Emotions are real, and valid, and true, and just because they’re not logical, just because their nonverbal internalized reactions to external stimuli, doesn’t mean they aren’t real and just as important to listen to.

But I won’t expound on the specific meaning of the quote here. I like the way it these lines take up space inside of me, how their reflection is not more words, not more understanding. Just impressions and feelings—beautiful, ineffable feelings.

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