The Underworld is a secret hidden space of destruction and generation. It is caves, swamps, worms that wriggle in the deep and aerate the soil, mythical lands of the ancestors, dark nights of the soul, ego deaths. The Underworld is a place where souls rest, where deities rule, and a place where heroes journey.
I’ve had my fair share of Underworld journeys in my life. It’s just part of who I am and why I do this work. (For anyone who speaks astrology, my sun in the 12th with Mars cazimi, conjunct Pluto. Yeah, I was kinda born to do this.) I explore, adventure, and go deep into the sticky-icky messes, into the dark & misty & liminal.
But I want to talk about a particular Underworld journey that is directly responsible for the fact that I am here, as a tarot reader & folk witch & educator, writing on this blog and sharing information about a workshop I am running about the Underworld. This builds on a story I shared a few weeks ago about how cleaning my house and homemaking got me to leave my engineering PhD. (You can read that blog here.)
You see, about 5 years ago, I was about 85% of the way to earning my PhD in Environmental Engineering. I thought that I was gonna do research that created renewable energy solutions that saved us from climate change. I was gonna be an advocate for renewables and convince our politicians to DO SOMETHING about climate change.
But here’s the first thing I learned in grad school: it is an accepted fact that we know everything we need to know in order to run the world on fully renewable technology. We don’t need more knowledge in order to go zero-carbon. My research was basically spinning wheels until the people with the power finally decided to do something. Then there was the way I had to live in order to keep up with the pace of work: I had to outsource all the chores. I never had time to clean my apartment and I had to hire people to clean my apartment when I moved out. I was usually too tired to cook for myself so I ordered food that was not nourishing for the “convenience”. I had no time to mend my clothing when it wore out. I certainly couldn’t garden. I was too tired to care for myself. Basically, I had to live a highly unsustainable lifestyle in order to do renewable energy research that no one actually needed. I outsourced all things necessary to continuation of life. And I outsourced them in ways that did nothing to help the continuation of life on this planet.
This was an Underworld in and of itself. Living a lifestyle I hated, that made me feel awful, that worked at counter-purposes to my own values and desires, so that I could maybe help the Earth, once the people with the power actually started to utilize the knowledge that already existed.
But the path that lead me from there to where I am now (a witch and educator living my fucking best life, a life in line with my values, and rather lighter on the earth, too) was an Underworld of a different sort. You see, I’ve never really been domestically inclined. I like to joke that I failed Italian-American housewife school. Not because I was bad at it, or because I didn’t enjoy it. Instead, because I fucking despised the gendered assumptions around it.
And yet this domestic work was the work that sustains life. It was the tools I had for making home, for making living pleasant, good, and joyful. It was the methods I had been taught for making life worthwhile and meaningful.
In that moment, I found myself far from my family, far from any semblance of anything that ever felt like home, despondent and depleting myself for a dream that was a lie. Desperate for anything that felt supportive, nourishing, sustaining, anything at all that felt like home, I did the unthinkable – I started cleaning my house. I started setting aside time to clean every Saturday. Slowly, I put up the pictures and decorations I had left in boxes since I moved in at the start of grad school. Bit by bit, I put boundaries on this work, this world view that was sucking away my life in the same way it was sucking away the life of the planet. And bit by bit, I made a home.
And I learned the joy of this “women’s work” that I had eschewed. On the other side of this dark night of the soul wherein I finally could see the beauty and power of this work, I could see how this domestic work was, in fact, the stuff of living. The stuff of living is anything we do that makes living good, anything that makes life able to continue. The stuff of living is cooking, cleaning, home maintenance, gardening. It is intimacy and love and lovemaking. It is caring for your loved ones when they’re sick and accepting their care when you are sick. It is mutual aid and showing up for community meetings and so much more. The stuff of living is the work of caring – caring for the earth, caring for yourself, caring for your loved ones, caring for your community.
The fact that I didn’t value, that the society I lived in didn’t value this work, was part and parcel with the way this society (me included) was spinning its wheels on climate change, and continuing to kill the planet.
Through my embrace of this work that I had derided as “women’s work”, through my questioning of the “masculine” sphere of modern STEM research, through seeking the balance in the liminal space between these two manufactured, created, artificial silos, I traversed an Underworld space within myself. I started to break down these artificial silos within myself and began to rethink my own relationship to work, success, and gender.
These artificial silos decayed and I was left with the empty space to lay a new foundation where I could build a life made up of the things that actually supported my life on the remains of the things society told me would support my life, but actually did no such thing.
I embraced the seasonal and spiritual practices I had been introduced to as a kid. I set my own values as the foundation for which I would build a new life. I began to embrace my gender-expansive nature. And on this foundation, I left grad school, moved back to Ohio, deepened into the spiritual skills that had begun to ground me, started my business, explored my gender identity. And a life full of meaning and purpose blossomed from it.
This process was disorienting and challenging to be sure. The process of abandoning a career path, in a field like academia, during grad school after nearly a decade of work and yet before you’ve even truly begun that career, certainly will be. Not all Underworld journeys are so deep and destabilizing. I’ve certainly been through less dramatic ones.
But this Underworld journey is so important to share because the shedding, decay, recycling and transformation of the Underworld brought me home. Home literally, home to myself, home to my values and a life lived with meaning. And that’s the power of the Underworld.
In honor of our new workshop Underworld Overviews: Hearth + Home, Emily & I have been writing a lot about the world below. You can find more blogs in this series by clicking the links below:
Are you ready to journey below? We’ve got a workshop for that! We’re excited to announce our FIRST workshop in a new series: Underworld Overviews: Hearth + Home. We’ll be meeting on February 19th to make connections, make magic, and make art together in a space dedicated solely to examining how the Underworld intersects with home and with each of us. Find out more here.