you are like me, understanding the surprise
finding light in Lucille Clifton’s oracle cards
Channeling is a semi-regular dispatch from J(enna) Wortham about surrender, creativity, the work of wellness and beyond.
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for Thầy for Greg for Valerie for bell for Amir for Betty for André for Sidney for —
Mourning rituals are community work. We hold each other, we show up (and out), we nourish at the repast. Even when those who pass aren’t our blood kin, we’ve still found ways to pay our respects, to gather in their name, to unleash pent-up emotions and comfort ourselves with the knowledge that others share in our pain. Our culture has figured out how to reopen Broadway, resume music festivals, conduct in-person fashion weeks, but it has taken longer to piece this crucial part back together. Sorrow as protest and keening over the dead on Twitter are more familiar, but both feel like field dressings – temporary, able to staunch the bleeding but not enough to heal the wound. And who are we without our ability to fully pay tribute to the dead? And what happens when the losses pile up so quickly we can’t even process them, let alone honor them?
I can’t answer these questions without feeling like I’m going to break down, so I draw a card. This has become my ritual, turning to an oracle deck created from Lucille Clifon’s poetry whenever the powerlessness threatens to overwhelm me and I need a glimmer of hope to carry me through.
i have learned to carry it
the way a poor man learns
to carry everything
Kaitlyn texted me a picture of the deck in January. “You know about this?” I didn’t, but I bought it immediately.
where we know where we are what we are
The deck was published a few months earlier. Tracy K. Smith selected the delicate poetry fragments that grace the seventy-eight cards in a night sky blue box. One side features slivers of Lucille’s words; the other, a drawing of a hand guiding a planchette, like the kind that that introduced Lucille to using spirit boards to communicate with her deceased mother, Miss Thelma, and also cemented her practice as a two-headed woman, with one foot in our material world and the other in the realm beyond.
In the fall of 1995, Tracy went to a poetry workshop with Lucille following the death of her own mother and was astounded to hear Lucille talk about her means of sustaining communication with the departed. Lucille spoke of death not as an ending, but a continuation. "I sat rapt, envious, hopeful," Tracy writes, "listening to Clifton describe her own initiation into a fierce and forthright form of knowing." The deck comes with instructions: Asking yes or no questions and choosing a card for the answer; picking four cards and arranging them in a line to see what is revealed; taking the cards to parties or classrooms and “bringing along a container of collards and kale.” It also advises users to give thanks by reading the poems out loud. The deck also comes with a warm orange collapsible paper plaque stand for displaying the cards on an altar, a nightstand or a desk.
keep this in the place
you have for keeping
Reading Lucille’s lines out of their original context takes on a new sense of transmission, communication through divination. The cards form a dreamy bridge between here and there, strengthening my own relationship to her legacy, her genius, her preoccupations, her wisdom. Lucille was intent on spreading light through her work, and the cards have an illuminating effect, both of the self and of the possibility of a kinship that even death cannot break.
rounder than the moon
and far more faithful
There are many ways to honor those who have ascended. They can be simple but tangible, like the way Tracy enshrined Lucille with these cards, and the way so many, including Marina Magloire, shepherded efforts to turn Lucille’s home into an artist’s residency. Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ rebirth broadcasts of Lucille’s poetry did this, too. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, whose biography of Lucille is forthcoming, calls these actions of excavating and keeping a person's legacy alive a kind of "ancestral tending."
love the silences
love the terrible noises
This work brings me comfort. This is the work we’ve always done, of remembering, of celebrating. It’s a way to resist the forgetting that is inevitable in the face of endless loss. To resist the grim helplessness that accompanies watching people felled by more invisibilized forms of state violence, negligence, stress, the weathering and toll that living under duress causes. A way to remember that we’re still finding our way back towards the rituals that keep us whole. And there’s gentleness within that, too. And as Imani Perry observed, in her most recent newsletter, that “we live in the tradition we are maintaining.”
we are here
between the lines
Bits of Light
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