Here’s that Ten of Wands Reversed tarot reading for background:
There is no shame in the body’s collapse under burden or trauma, no demerit in the curled-up, ground-level tremors of exhaustion, fear, or grief. Burnout is a form of self-preservation, rife with covert fortitude. The card of overwhelming obligation and self-expenditure is also the card of endurance. These seasons which push us past all limits are crucibles. They rearrange our chemistries and within them, we make ourselves anew. But it is fine to first embrace with fevered ease the collapsing and the quaking. Steal a few precious, Void-kissed hours of corpselike sleep. Let yourself be the mothy, gray pile of ashes and skeletal, cindered feathers before you make yourself rise in wobbling, warbling glory.
The ashes, too, are every bit the phoenix.
This got me wondering, how do we so easily forget that the ashes are also the phoenix? I suspect visual artists have done a disservice in airbrushing and age-warping this symbol. The way we portray the firebird so often favors fashion over alchemy, and while that fashion has its place, it skips vital steps.
The phoenix doesn’t burst into flames mid-youth only to rise from the ashes, fully formed, trilling and glowing like a sequined diva. The phoenix ages, molts, and crumbles. It minds its own decay on the way to its flames. It rests in ashes. It hatches new, naked and graceless. According to ancient mythology, the phoenix hatches from its ashes as a worm. Every stage, the corpse worm; the arrow-mouthed, ink-eyed, tentative babe; the odd-angled, skew-feathered fledgeling; the decrepit, avian crone; and the chalky heap of cinders, is just as much the phoenix as the honey-voiced, vermillion thing in its prime.
What if the power in this symbol doesn’t spring from the bird’s ability to pass through flames un-killed, but from the bird’s ability to start over from scratch without forgetting the pain of where it came from, and where it is bound to return? The trick lies in passing through brutal, repeating cycles with continued consciousness, but never unscathed. Scathed is the very fulcrum of this picture, and radiant only comes in seasons.
The phoenix symbolizes the cycle of birth, growth, death, and rebirth. We cut the growth and death phases from the frame, perhaps in part because Western culture has a ferocious resurrection fetish, perhaps because contemporary culture has a hyper-sanitized aversion to death, and perhaps because our culture reviles age and illness, yet also condescends to youth and inexperience. Whatever the reason, we lose the pulse of its meaning in the cosmetic process.
The phoenix symbolizes the uncomfortable tenacity it takes to be old while young, and young while old, and many things in one. Life is cyclical, and quite often brutal. Cycles carry us through discomfort, uncertainty, vulnerability, and mess. Sometimes you fall back into your teenage. Sometimes you sit in your cinders. Sometimes you cough and shriek and molt.
Resilience doesn’t look like beauty and birdsong every day, nor should it. Your grotesquery is your birthright. Your scathed is your luminance, too.
Ancient symbols shift in meaning as we carry them forward and review them through the filter of our own time. Our ability to read into them derives largely from what we glean from surface appearances, coupled with the context of our own cultures. That means the way artists draw things now and next matters.
There is power and purpose in the image of the phoenix bursting in adult splendor from the flames. There is power and purpose in the firebird who shines like royalty within the furnace of trial. Those iterations have their own worth.
All the same, for those of us whispering over the fringes in this tender, wretched age, let’s paint some disquiet back into the birdsong. Let’s sculpt the sickly ashes; the maggot; the bellyaching hatchling; the skewed, ungainly youth; the arthritic, molting thing; and the blackened, hollow bones. Let’s draft the discomfort of growth and decay back into the cycle, that we might better forgive ourselves our own mess, and recognize the shining fortitude within our efforts, fumbling and homely though they may be.