I’m working on the Ninth Mansion of the Moon image, called Al-Tarf after beta Cancri. It’s… ahem… an image of some delicacy, because it’s a man covering his eyes and wanting his genitals. I suppose I could draw or photograph a Ken doll. But a different image both suggested and presented itself, so I’m working on that. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s going to appear here. Lines have to be drawn somewhere.
Plus, it’s an image for “causing discord among men” and causing trouble in travel and limiting harvests. So I’ve interrupted myself several times in the drawing of it, to consider whether it’s a good idea to finish it. And now, I’m stuck in Atlanta at the airport.
The modern American teacher, typically a modernist and a materialist and a rationalist (no matter what church they belong to or what god or gods they believe in), is likely to regard this as unlucky coincidence. I mean, here I am stuck in an airport, and it’s no big deal — travel at the holidays, this time of year, is likely to be complicated. It’s winter — weather incidents are likely to get in the way.
Nonetheless, here I am under a full moon, on the day that the Moon is in the Ninth Mansion of Al-Tarf, and the number of people who are showing up at the gate to fly back “home” who I know is growing and growing. There’s a whole family that lives just up the hill from my lady, and a guy I know from a festival in eastern New York called SpiritFire. I have this feeling that others I know will be showing up shortly to take this same “last flight from Atlanta” to get back to New England. Astonishing.
And part of me wonders if part of it is that Barbiel, the angel of the ninth mansion, wants his/her image finished and opened to the world? Is that why we’re all here? It’s a lot of odd coincidences piling up on top of one another. Folks from my magical life all appear at the same gate at the same airport?
Of course a typical American teacher — from a rationalist, materialist, modernist viewpoint — would insist that this is ridiculous. Angels are not particularly supposed to be in American public schools at the very least, and how would drawing a picture of Barbiel’s image and reciting a prayer or declaration on his behalf get me home any sooner? Would publishing his image make it easier or harder for me to get home? Would it have any effect at all? Again, the rationalist, materialist, modernist teacher in me would say, no, of course not.
Am I always those things, though? No, not really. Not so much. I’m mindful that we know more than we realize, and that we affect more than we realize. There’s more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. And so it’s an easy matter to resolve. If Barbiel wants his image revealed to the world, he’s going to have to wait — holdign me up is not going to get me to give out a tool for causing discord among men or causing infirmity.
But let me release a different kind of tool to the world, a poem. Let me unlock my word hoard, and remind Barbiel that we mortals are not utterly powerless to the machinations of the spirit realms.
Hail, al-Tarf’s Barbiel, honest and sure,
who of twenty-eight mansions rules the ninth.
Give me strength, infirmity to endure,
and help me through a long journey day’s length.
You halt winnowers on the threshing floor,
and hinder travelers at the portal,
and strand the ships on sandbars far from shore,
while warning the youthful that they’re mortal.
“Prince of unpleasant truths” thy epithet,
while Heaven’s Cancer defines thy mansion:
Leave us untouched, and now kindly forget
to gift us with trials of your invention.
Distance me from men of malignant will,
and go on thy way without doing ill.
They’ve just announced the gate for my flight, and we’ll see whether Barbiel lets me go home. But let me ask this of myself and my readers, O materialist, rationalist, modernists that we are… IF I do get home, is it because Barbiel helped me? Or that my poem hindered him? Or that he’s punishing me for my audacity? Or that his power is waning now that his time is ending and the next mansion is beginning?
OR… is it just that the weather cleared up and the airline got their act together, and so on?
These matters are not cut and dried. They are not settled, though we believe them so. When we take on an alternate mindset, like “magic is real and there are spirits that work in the world,” we start encountering murky but consequential evidence that this is on. When we take on a materialist mindset, and adopt the idea that this physical body of meat and minerals is all that there is, we encounter murky but consequential evidence that this is so. When we perform experiments to determine if there are spirit-beings, like writing these poems, and determine their results— we encounter evidence that they exist and that they can be persuaded or guided or governed. When we deny their existence, we likewise encounter evidence that they are not real, and that travel delays and weather challenges are just part of the ordinary circumstances and difficulties of travel. Welcome to the world. Life is hard. Oh well, get used to it.
As Yann Martel pointed out in The Life of Pi, though, the world benefits from a degree of magical thinking from us. We reënchant the world, in some sense, by believing in it and making it so. My life is enriched and beautified by writing poetry in praise of an angel that most people in this airport would be hard-pressed to believe exists — “an angel who acts to hinder travelers and cause infirmities? Isn’t that a bit much for a God who is absolutely just?”
And yet, in writing this poem, haven’t I enriched your life? Haven’t I done what I could to bring my companions and colleagues and fellow travelers closer to home? Haven’t I done my best to enchant the world so that they arrive at their intended destination? Let us hope so.
Barbiel, may you prosper our way by forgetting about us for now.