Internet As Intimacy Podcasts and Tarot Reading Showed Me How to Be Real Instead of “Good”
It is not enough to be pretty. It is not enough to be obedient, or deferential, or useful. Being not a problem is not enough for a person to live on.
This is Internet As Intimacy , a monthly column by Sarah Lyn Rogers on finding self and community in digital spaces.
Ritual has always called to me. I can’t remember the content of a single episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark , a Nickelodeon show that aired when I was a wee babe, but I do remember the ritual elements: that teens gathered around a campfire to tell scary stories, that they called themselves the Midnight Society, that each storyteller would throw glittering dust onto the fire for extra drama at the top of their tale, and that the campfire was always quenched with a bucket of water at the end, before they each went their separate ways through woods in the blue-white dark.
As a grown babe, I found ritual again in a six-month tarot-immersion course called Brooklyn Fools . The in-person class was led by founder Jeff Hinshaw and fellow tarot reader Lindsay Mack. Meanwhile, far from Brooklyn, I was taking Jeff’s class via video chat from Bhutan, where, after taking an indefinite hiatus from grad school, and agreeing to leave a full-time job at a tech startup, I lived for a year with my husband. In Bhutan, he had a job. I had, for the first time, a lot of free time, and a restless spirit. (And, okay, some freelance work. And a constant supply of dishes and laundry to do by hand.) For months, I Google-hung-out with the Brooklyn Fools online group once a week. We lit candles; we studied cards; we did guided meditations in which we met tarot archetypes; we presented meaningful objects to each other to build a virtual altar, and we shared some personal things, having built tentatively trusting relationships over many weeks. It was like meeting with a secret society around a virtual campfire. Then it was over.
When Lindsay Mack was interviewed many months later on a podcast called Dream Freedom Beauty , I listened and immediately subscribed. In the episode , Lindsay goes deep into her own story of living with PTSD and having to trust that danger signals from her nervous system are almost never telling her the truth. She also explains how she values difficult experiences, because they can help her help others: “You can’t take people further than you personally are willing to go,” she said. This was jaw-dropping to me, as I had long felt it was my job to make sure no one around me was ever experiencing sadness or anxiety or anger, and if they were, it was also my job to get rid of it as quickly as possible, by whatever means I had.
Perhaps even more amazing to me was the podcast’s host, Natalie Ross, who follows Lindsay’s experiences—of abuse and a nervous breakdown and trusting her intuition—with openness and curiosity. I’d heard the phrase “hold space” before, the advice to “hold space” rather than offering solutions or redirecting the conversation—but I hadn’t understood what it meant until this podcast.
When I was still very small, crying was called “whining” and the punishment was humiliation. Once, when I was maybe five and could not stop crying, someone I loved and trusted retaliated: They made me wear something degrading and then laughed in my face at how absurd I looked. When I tried to remove it, they pulled my hand away: “No. You have to wear this until you stop crying.” I couldn’t leave the room. I couldn’t protest my personhood being a joke. I cried harder, then slowly willed myself silent. My sadness did not go away, but I was rewarded with my freedom for hiding it. Later, the adult who had humiliated me remembered this as a good teaching moment, wherein I supposedly learned not to be too much for other people. “Should I make you wear that again?” was a threat meant to put me in my place, where I have stayed for the rest of my life.
When I was maybe seven, I could not understand how to put on a twisty, crisscrossing swimsuit top for a summer family gathering where there would also be several adults I did not know. I crept out of the bathroom to ask a relative for help and did not receive it, was told that I was fine, that I was overreacting, that it did not matter that I did not want strangers to see me half-naked. When I became upset, this person I loved and trusted took a picture of me, and later displayed it on their refrigerator as a reminder to me, and anyone who visited their home, what I looked like when I was “being nasty.”
I can see the photograph now: my helpless, furious little face raging into the camera’s eye; my body the way I had not wanted it, outdoors with no swimsuit top; one arm angrily swiping across my naked torso and nipples I hadn’t wanted anyone to see. Now my body was on display all day every day in this person’s kitchen, where anyone could stare at it without me even knowing. Again, the adult in the situation imagined this as a teaching moment: This is how ugly you look when you are bad . It was a teaching moment, but not whatever lesson they thought it would be.
The lesson was this: that if I were deemed a nuisance by people I loved, they would demonstrate for me how little power I had (to explain myself, to get what I needed, to escape); they would overpower me and enjoy it. Or maybe this: That even people who seemed “safe” because they loved and liked me were just waiting for an invitation to bully and shame me, and me being “too much” was the invitation.
How was I supposed to know what it could mean to “hold space” for someone else’s big emotions when there had never been any space for mine?
Dream Freedom Beauty came at an important time in my life. Home from Bhutan, my husband and I were living in a communal house with a few friends. My husband had always felt like The Person Who Saw Me, and when the two of us were alone together, everything felt easy. We never fought, and small disagreements were understood as misunderstandings, not bad intentions. Sometimes I think I lucked my way into a relationship with someone who doesn’t anger, who doesn’t jump to conclusions, who doesn’t try to bend me into some Pygmalion-like vision. The quiet, observant part of me—the part that categorizes people as “probably understanding” and “probably not”—knows that this is why he feels like sanctuary, why he always did. But sharing physical space with a bunch of people, and him having a teaching job that meant crisscrossing the Bay Area for hours and hours every day, while I worked part-time and freelanced, was taking a toll.
Communal living, though often fun, was taking a different toll on me. After living with only my husband for a couple of years, it was hard to be around competing desires for space and time again. I didn’t know how to be on a level playing field—when there was a feeling of competition for a resource, or any trace of ill will, all I knew how to do was disappear.
A joke I know goes like this:
Q: How do you kill an introvert?
A: You starve her to death by putting a stranger in her kitchen.
There were often guests in our home. And even the people I lived with felt somewhat like strangers, authority figures I was in constant danger of disappointing or angering. Prior to moving into this shared home, my husband and I had taken pity on a mangey street dog in Bhutan and, after months of caring for her, I had asked to take her home with us. Intentionally doing something imposing is not like me, but being soft-hearted always has been. In the shared home, my rescue dog (who was new to everything: being on a leash, being indoors, living with cats) was tolerated until she revealed herself to be a problem. I resonated with that. I lived in an anxiety-driven headspace with its own rules: that I was allowed to be around other people only if I was doing something virtuous—washing dishes, loading or unloading the dishwasher, taking out recycling, working on observable freelance projects like proofreading. That, otherwise, I would be quiet and hidden. That this would protect me from having negative feelings, and would protect me from causing other people to have them.
I didn’t know yet what Natalie Ross or my therapist would say: that we can’t control other people’s emotions, only what we do with them. That we’re not doing any favors by trying to control other people’s behavior. And yet being “good” had always been my magic feather. That was the thing about being terrified of another person’s anger or sadness: I could figure out how to do almost anything on my own, because to ask for help or to admit defeat was to subject myself to another person’s unpredictable, maybe dangerous, negative feelings. A younger me had hidden from explosive yelling, so many slammed doors, objects breaking in the wake of shaking walls—the danger was imaginary and not. I knew two ways to make it go away. If someone else was the cause of someone’s negative feelings, I knew how to be an ally, how to meddle, how to offer solutions. If I was the cause, I knew how to abandon myself. I could do whatever another person told me to until the sense of danger passed.
This was the background against which my husband told me the distressing thing that broke me for a while. Frustrated with his daily routine and lack of direction and never-empty home and terrible commute, he finally told me, quietly, in the middle of the night: “I wish I could live alone.” Panic. I tried my old standby of offering solutions, even as the knowledge stung that I was one of the people he wanted to be away from: I could plan to be out of the house certain nights a week. What if he spent a weekend away every so often? He rebuffed every attempt I made to “fix” this feeling, not wanting to plan or strategize it away. For months, I tried to be physically there and not, in response to a depressing koan of “It’s not that I don’t want you around; I just want to be by myself.”
There they were again, old fears about being “too much” and all of the self-blame that goes with them. A child’s magical thinking: I could have prevented everything bad from happening if I just had more self-control . If I hadn’t asked to bring the dog home. If I had a “real” job instead of cobbling together freelance and part-time work. If I weren’t trying to write a novel. If I cleaned more. If I made more money. If I had fewer belongings. Everywhere I looked, I could see myself as a burden. Having any presence at all felt like a liability that could make me into a problem. Which was absurd. I knew that this person loved me, loves me. He saw me—sees me—as a real, multifaceted human being, and he chose to spend his life with me. But could I trust that he did not, in some tiny part of him, also hate me a little? Wasn’t that just how people who loved me sometimes expressed it?
I found myself doing a kind of math I’d learned in childhood: to be un-bothersome to the people around me, how much less than a real person did I have to be? These are the words I have for this as an adult, looking back. This feels undeservedly dramatic, but I’m of this belief: someone who finds your sadness and rage hilarious does not see you as a real person. You might be a sidekick or a secretary or a gold-star worker, but you are not a precious, tender, holy human being. If someone’s reaction to your distress is to silence you, they are protecting themselves at your expense. What I didn’t realize until later was this: this is exactly what I was trying to do to my husband, by problem-solving his unsolvable frustration instead of just commiserating. But could I trust that he did not, in some tiny part of him, also hate me a little? Wasn’t that just how people who loved me sometimes expressed it?
Dream Freedom Beauty kept me company while I tried to be and not be , while I drove to and from my job, did housework, and took long, meandering walks with my dog. On football fields, at parks, in rainstorms, beneath crows, and (once) a barn owl, we walked. During long, slow loops around the neighborhood, sometimes I thought about how long I would have to be gone for anyone to wonder about me. If I got struck by a car. If I got lost. How long before my absence would be a source of concern? With my earbuds in, I let myself be nurtured by ritual: the music that opens and closes the podcast, Natalie Ross beginning every episode with an invocation and reminders to check in with the body, how it feels, what it knows. I loved that none of the guests’ stories seemed to faze Natalie—not breakups, not miscarriages, not suicidal ideation. Natalie never made her guests, who were explaining their own huge emotional experiences to her, take care of her .
When I was not listening to the podcast, I had vengeful, self-pitying, ridiculous thoughts about selling off my furniture, my clothes, wondering how ascetic a life I would have to live to be safe from being annoying. I imploded with anger and didn’t know who or what it was for. Now I know it was anger at my own idea that, to make everything okay, I had to be nothing or no one, to disappear. Anger at how little I felt permitted to be by most people and situations—deferential, obedient, a problem-solver, pretty —and anger at how my smallness had always been positively reinforced—by most people, by school, by jobs, by the whole fucking system.
It is not enough to be pretty. It is not enough to be obedient, or deferential, or useful. Being not a problem is not enough for a person to live on. What I’d thought I was angry about was having to make myself even smaller to feel okay again. What I was really angry about, I later realized, was that I’d ever been made to feel afraid to take up space in the first place. That I was not allowed to have big feelings, by people who were afraid of engaging with them, because they were afraid of engaging with feelings at all, even their own. And that, for others, I had been the vehicle on which they sent their big feelings away from themselves—whether I was dispensing reassurance and advice beyond my years, or carrying messages back and forth from family members. ( Tell him it’s time to come in for dinner . Well, tell her I need a few more minutes. Tell him if he doesn’t come in right now, we’re all going to start without him . You didn’t hear this from me, but he’s really mad at you. You didn’t hear this from me, but she said this terrible thing about him . He didn’t mean that. You know how she gets. )
Who’s allowed to have a feeling? Who gets to assign their feeling to an intern?
I was tired of being “good” and nice and still feeling like a wrecking ball. I didn’t know how to feel or be anymore—my old rules were blowing up my life. All I had were my rituals: the dog-walking, the podcasts, and returning to a regular tarot practice. Tarot gets pitched as a fortune-telling exercise, but I think it’s really about giving yourself a better understanding of the present. I would argue that most of the cards are not “nice,” because evolving through trials and challenges is not “nice.” Tarot made me face the ways in which I was, and was not, being honest with myself about my feelings. If I pulled a card like the Seven of Wands, which depicts a man with mismatched shoes fighting to defend his little space on top of a hill, I couldn’t help but think about things in my life that I was doing maybe a bad job defending, the ways in which I felt unprepared and too overwhelmed to face all of the different energies coming at me.
Tarot cards also reminded me that only certain small things were within my control. The Five of Pentacles is about lack, worry, limited resources. This is illustrated in different ways on different decks, but on one of them, a woman keeps her hands busy and her mind still by making tortillas. When you have nothing else, you make what you can with what you have. Another card, the Wheel of Fortune, is about not knowing how a situation will unfold. If you stay close to the center of the wheel, taking care of the smaller things, the movement of the wheel feels less wild, less chaotic, than if you were to try to run along the outer wheel’s edges, observing every change in rapid time.
I upped my podcast intake. I went for longer drives, longer walks. Along with Dream Freedom Beauty , I devoured a podcast called Starseed Survival Guide , hosted by Yaya Erin Rivera Merriman, who is simultaneously very comforting and rather psychedelic. Along with sound collages, music, and incantations, Starseed Survival Guide takes the ritual elements of podcast a step further, opening and closing each episode with a tone from a sound bowl, presenting a container for the episode as though it is itself a meditation. Some of these episodes focus on pretty astounding conversation topics like astral projection, accessing the akashic records, or communing with nature spirits, things that I (at the time) couldn’t believe people would admit in public to believing, or would talk freely about. I liked that everyone on these podcasts was given the same platform and the same respect, whether their beliefs or lifestyle aligned with the host’s or not. No one was challenged or forced to justify why what was different about them should be validated. Everyone’s inherent value spoke for itself. Someone who finds your sadness and rage hilarious does not see you as a real person. You might be a sidekick or a secretary or a gold-star worker, but you are not a precious, tender, holy human being.
Mostly, I was awed by the way both hosts and guests engaged with their own pain, and how they used it as information to aid in healing themselves and others. Things that seemed common to all guests and the hosts were a tender awareness of their own wounds; awareness of the ways in which they are capable of causing harm, even unintentionally, to others; a willingness to be self-critical; the desire to heal oneself and others; and the knowledge that healing is a lifelong journey but also an important responsibility with a ripple effect. On at least one of these podcasts (or on her own, Tarot for the Wild Soul , which launched later), Lindsay Mack shares that when she could not afford to see a therapist, she listened to psychologist Tara Brach’s podcasts and that they saved her life. In a smaller way, I understand what she means.
There were two big hurdles to me finally going to therapy myself. The first was that it took these particular podcasts to show me what listening without redirecting or “fixing” sounded like—something I had not experienced for myself, and so could not offer to someone else. It was amazing to me that even someone who did not share and could not understand another person’s experience could still give them space and simply witness and affirm their feelings. I was a fly on the virtual wall of these recorded conversations for months before I believed I could both want and receive this for myself. The second thing was that I had to unlearn a belief that if I displayed big emotions myself, I was “asking for” negative attention or punishment.
Natalie and Erin’s demeanor as podcast hosts—and the vulnerability and honesty of their guests—proved to me that there were at least some strangers in the world who would listen to me with openness and curiosity. These podcasts also gave me the idea that there’s an overlap between people who are into magic and people who are willing to take hard looks at themselves. (This is not alway s true, but was a helpful guiding principle in my search.) All of this gave me the courage to find my own therapist—a New Age-y, reiki-practicing one. She supported me in recognizing that making myself very small is not good for me, and also not good for whomever I’m trying to help, or be there for. I can’t feel other people’s feelings for them. I can’t make my own feelings disappear. I can’t take anyone’s pain away by making myself invisible. And conflict and disagreement are okay—they’re not points of no return. These are all fairly simple, obvious truths that don’t feel like truths when you’ve long believed that the people around you will be okay only if you always appear to be fine.
I had to learn to make space for myself before I could hold it for anyone else, for someone I would do almost anything for. I had to learn how to sit in the discomfort and know that we would both survive it.
By the time I started going to therapy, Jeff Hinshaw, my Brooklyn Fools tarot teacher, had begun an astrology podcast called Cosmic Cousins . I listened to him when I took the train to my appointments. It felt a little like homecoming: familiar guided meditation formats, his friendly voice and laugh, his largeheartedness. Thinking of people through their different Zodiac signs was a mini-revelation for me. I had always been rewarded for the ways I mirrored the people around me—the way I spoke, the way I dressed—like certain people only saw me when I was reflecting them back to themselves. What was different about me (that I was soft, intellectual, read between the lines, wanted boundaries, had wanderlust) had often been ignored or made a problem by people who thought they knew me better than I knew myself. But it’s really the differences between people that make us real, make us us .
I feel this strongly when I listen to another favorite podcast, Food 4 Thot (“wherein a multiracial mix of queer writers talk about sex, relationships, race, identity, what we like to read, and who we like to read”): I am able to have a fondness for the four hosts because I understand them as separate people rather than a monolith because they constantly disagree with each other because they have very different deep-set beliefs based on their own very different life experiences. It pained me to notice this: They seem to love each other because of their differences, their defiances, not in spite of them. I could not imagine them making each other conform to some neutral, agreeable middle. Making each other be “nice.” I had wanted that, and had feared wanting that, for myself.
I think everyone can benefit from therapy. Particularly people with this attitude: “No one ever helped us , and we turned out fine!” Burying negative emotions in other people, giving your unprocessed burdens to them, is not fine. I think everyone should consider how our actions, despite our intentions, can harm others. For what it’s worth, the idea that the only way to live a meaningful life is to be “of use” to people and systems more powerful than you is harmful to all of us. Acknowledging the ways in which I’ve experienced harm, and then using that knowledge to avoid harming others in the same ways, is the gift that these podcasts and therapy have given me. I am not perfect, but I am imperfectly trying.
You can’t bully sadness or anger or anxiety out of someone. Hiding a feeling doesn’t mean it’s gone. We can only look to ourselves and ask if we are being honest about our feelings. We can ask why someone else’s distress makes us angry or makes us laugh. We can take a good, hard look at what we dismiss in other people. We can—and must—let people feel their feelings without trying to take them on ourselves, or poof them away with solutions. We can hurt people when we think we’re helping them. We can admit that. And we can try to do better.
In so many ways, I am still learning what it means to be real. This is part of it.
The twelve signs in the western Zodiac system are divided into four elements (earth, air, fire, water). Each element can also have one of three personalities, if you will: cardinal (beginning of the season, novelty, leadership energy), fixed (middle of the season, stability, dependable energy), mutable (end of the season, receptivity, changeable energy). My sun, moon, and rising signs are Pisces (mutable water), Virgo (mutable earth), and Gemini (mutable air). Mutable, mutable, mutable. Sometimes it has seemed like it was written in the stars that I would be erasable. That I could be on this planet without really being here at all. But I know better now. Pisces is the last sign. She has a little bit of all of the other signs in her—she can take you to the furthest depths because she has been there, is willing to go. Mutable is not erasable. Mutable is flexible, a shapeshifter. Mutable sees all, contains multitudes, can invoke or banish for balance. Mutable can withstand pressure without breaking; mutable knows how to bend so that she will hold together. And she can hold space for you by holding her own.