I was staying in a small cube on the outskirts of Belgrade. The outer wall was baldly exposed to the Serbian August sun, and the room quickly turned oven-like in the morning. It had only a few small windows that did not open far, and there was no way to create a breeze. By 6am it was too hot to sleep. By 8am it was too hot to stay indoors.
I would drag a chair under the fig trees in the front yard, and wait until the sun had moved through the sky enough so that my apartment was no longer under attack and I could go back inside. It occurred to me, more than once, that I should just go into the city, get away from this stifling little room. But I was in the middle of a run of bad luck, and I felt menaced by Belgrade. I did not find the city friendly, and so I stayed in my room, despite the discomfort, despite the sense of slow suffocation.
The few times I did wander off, I felt a growing panic the farther away I got. As if I had lost my connection to some vague, undefined thing that would keep me alive. I felt unsafe. And I would hurry back to my room, closed up tight under the hot sun, where I had my computer and access to my faraway friends and something to read and a steady supply of water and vodka. I would sit there and pray for some miraculous outside force to break me out of these walls.
The Four of Coins is, essentially, Austerity. In my deck, a woman clings to her four coins, arms wrapped tightly around them. She sneaks an anxious glance over her shoulder, back towards the city walls. Fours are stable, but stable like the four right angles of my room, tight and confining.
She has her belongings, and she is keeping them all on her body at the same time, worried that someone might forcibly try to take them from her. She is outside the city walls, unprotected. She senses a potential lack — perhaps those men over her shoulder also see the coins in her arms — and she wants to protect herself from it.
When I look at this card, I see the suspicion and the stinginess, rather than the stability. I’m beginning to see the downside of stability anyway. If there are no gaps, no absences, what is there left to strive for? When I look at someone’s astrological chart for the first time, I look to see what isn’t there. Because wherever there is a lack, that is where I find the person. If there is a big glaring hole in a chart, or in a person’s life, that is where you can find them with their little tool box, working on compensation. Where the hole is the greatest, that is where they have their greatest potential.
But first a person has to admit that there is an absence there. It’s so easy to put some wallpaper up over the enormous hole in the wall, maybe move the wardrobe there to cover the dent. One longs for harmony. But with everything in perfect balance, things go into stasis. It’s potato chips on the couch time, let’s see what’s on the television. Why bother go exploring, I have thirteen episodes of this show to watch. It will meet all of my needs.
How easy it is to slip into our own personal austerity. To respond to the world’s taking away by grasping at what remains with white knuckles and cracked fingernails. It’s “Mary Todd Lincoln sewing her bonds into her petticoats,” Jen May wrote to me. After the world took away her husband, three sons, and a great deal of her sanity, she began sewing her fortune into her undergarments and walking around the streets of Chicago, wearing her money. As she spent her money on items she never used, just piling them up around her, she seemed hell bent that her heirs would not inherit her fortune. What little she had remaining in this world, she would take with her.
“For some time you’ve done nothing but close doors, it’s become a habit; for a while you hold your breath, but then anxiety grabs your heart again and the instinct is to bolt everything, even the windows, without realizing that this way there’s no air and as you suffocate, the migraine batters your temples; eventually all you hear is the sound of your own headache.” – Claudio Magris
For Magris, life “is a port.” Allowing things to go in and out, allowing for the mingling of the native with the unexpected. Life without variety is not worth living. This is the antithesis of the 4 of Coins. It is the antithesis of nations’ response to the worldwide instability we are feeling, from the largest governments down to the tiniest aspects of our daily lives: close off borders, slash budgets, assume anything different is dangerous.
It takes tremendous strength to allow for change, to let something be taken away from you and then wait to see what might replace it. It takes tremendous strength to let strangers wander in, to be generous in the face of scarcity. Whole nations must relearn this lesson again and again, as they close up social programs in the face of budget shortages, and then they sit, mired for years, everything held so tightly around them, wondering why they can’t move. It’s a denial of other people’s humanity, measuring the value of their bodies against the value of your own gold.
In all of the fairy tales, it is the poor woman giving her last bit of bread who is blessed with showers of gold. It is the rich man who cannot spare a cent who is torn to pieces by the rabble.
Late one night, despite my fears of the Belgrade outside my door, it was too hot to sleep, and I left my front door wide open as an act of desperation. I was watching something or other on my computer when I looked up and saw a stray dog had wandered into my apartment, and was staring at me, head cocked.
I stood, wondering if the dog would bite me. He simply looked. I went to the kitchen and took the remainder of a roasted chicken out of the fridge. I placed it outside my front door. He seemed uninterested. I worried that if I put my hands on him, he would put his teeth in me, and so I walked up to him slowly and stood very close to him. And then pressed my body against his and moved in the direction of the door.
The dog, up to my waist, allowed himself to be moved. We slowly scooted ourselves across the room, pressed tightly together, him never quite getting the message about where we were going. When we reached my stoop, he decided to stand guard, alert and staring outwards into the dark night. I fell asleep as he watched over the apartment, allowing in the breeze but no humans. When I awoke in the night, he was there. When I awoke in the morning, he was gone.
I’ve read enough Roberto Calasso to know a visitation when I see it. The next day, I packed up my bags and decided to give up the little room. To see what we might exchange it for.
Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of Bookslut.com and Spoliamag.com. She reads tarot cards specifically for writers and artists, meant to unearth creativity and remove blocks. You can contact her at email@example.com. Additional info is here.