I was lying on a yoga mat in a Bushwick loft with two quartz minerals on either side of my head, when the “art witch” placed a selenite crystal just below my chest. I had just gone through a soul-searching tarot reading session in which a preponderance of pentacles revealed that I had to be more systematic and less feverish about pursuing my goals, while the ace of wands (with its phallic symbology) insured I had the “fire” to keep going.
I had come to Molly Burkett, a 27-year-old healer, looking for guidance about work: because of my visa status, I’ll have to bid adieu to America by the end of the winter unless a miracle comes my way. The reading, however, was just part of what Burkett had prepared for me.
Burkett considers herself an art witch because she engages with her energy through the power of positive thinking, mindful magical action, meditation, yoga, and her many artistic pursuits: writing, singing, dancing, performing, taking pictures. She also specializes in reiki, a Japanese technique for healing and stress reduction, as I learned after our tarot session. Burkett told me to close my eyes and focus on my breathing while she lay her hands on my head, then on my shoulders, then on my collarbones. “Some people experience a tingling sensation because of the crystals,” she warned.
As soon as I became focused on my breathing, I felt a buzzing sensation in my limbs, similar to what you might experience in a room full of whirring computers. My hands twitched as if from a mild electrocution. I felt my glutes contract for no reason. The window of the loft was partially open and a breeze entered the room, but the chills I felt were superficial — the insides of my body were warm. My mind drifted off and I started seeing the faces of present, past, and could-have-been lovers. Then I visualized my editor wearing a checkered, preppy J Crew shirt and a co-worker trying on a fitted shirt. Somehow, I felt cradled by the progressive appearance of this all-male cast.
After the session, Burkett told me she felt some tension in my lower abs and hips. “There was something for you, upon coming of age as a woman, with your hips and your tits and how other people perceive you.” She was right. In high school, the only compliments I got came from my gay friends, one of whom I had a huge crush on. “He told me I looked like a Klimt painting,” I said.
Then Burkett visualized an image of me holding a yellow, orange-shaped fruit. “Sometimes, fruit is symbolic of the feminine,” she said, “so I would investigate how you use it, how you came of age and how you approach your femininity.”
Her advice: “Own the fruit.”
* * *Burkett was exposed to neo-paganism and spirituality while growing up in a “pretty radical household” in Indiana. Her father was an economics professor who wrote Marxist literature and her mother was a neo-pagan “priestess” who home-schooled her child in Goddess devotion and gave her a tarot deck when she was 15. When the family moved to their new home, mother and daughter went into every room, smudged it and blessed it.
At Indiana University, Burkett studied modern dance, her “first love,” but then transitioned to psychology and then communication and culture. Back then, she wore facial piercings and a blonde faux-hawk, and she smoked pot and drank heavily, even while working at a pizza parlor: “I would get up, I would get my coffee, then I would get to the end of my coffee and I would fill it with beer and finish my shift drunk. That’s how you dealt with troubling emotions in the Midwest.”
Burkett, “always a deep thinker,” was prone to anxiety and depression, and had been on and off of medication, and in therapy, since early adolescence. She had long seen tarot cards as a means of introspection, journaling and self-reflection, but in college she started giving readings to other people.
At 23, after moving to New York, she experienced her spiritual awakening. She was struggling financially while working service and retail jobs, and going through a bad breakup. “All that forced me into this corner where I was really at my wit’s end,” she recalled. “I was very desperate, I was feeling alone. New York was on top on me and I was tapping out.”
But then she stumbled on two mantra videos on YouTube, one about protection and the other about moving negativity, and she found herself singing along to them for two hours. “My whole body started vibrating and tingling: it was like a godgasm, it was greater than any orgasm,” she told me. The experience — the awakening of Kundalini, she posits — left her high for three days.
Burkett began seeing a therapist in New York. “I started getting my shit together and understanding what is wrong with me, coming into a sort of greater balance,” she told me. “I looked at what was my creative bucket list and one of them was ‘design my own deck.’ I started seriously studying the meanings [of the tarot] so I could design my tarot deck.”
Another turning point was her introduction to the Moon Church, the Bushwick-based witch and Goddess collective. “It was the first time that I met other girls like me, cool but into spirituality,” she said.
Much of Burkett’s spirituality revolves around the moon, which she associates with the feminine form of the divine. During our session, she wore a purple shawl and told me that purple projects a feminine “moon priestess” kind of wisdom. “The triple moon symbol — waxing, full, waning; Maiden, Mother, Crone — resonated with me as a touchstone symbol of coming into my power as a woman,” she said. She learned to associate her depression with the hormonal shifts that happened during her menstrual cycle and the cycle of the moon.
At a Moon Church event honoring Freya, the Norse goddess of sex, love and war, she became acquainted with Phillip English and “the boys from Catland”, where she began giving tarot card readings. Last year, she pursued Reiki certification level 1 and 2 from the Maha Rose Center For Healing in Greenpoint. “It was just, like, I had to come to New York to redefine what was possible,” she said.
“For me, Brooklyn, and industrial Bushwick, have this sort of blank canvas kind of quality,” she elaborated. “The ever changing and ever-transforming aspect of Brooklyn mirrors the spiritual practice of accepting that things are in constant change.”
True to that spirit of adaptability, Burkett considers herself a “spirit slut” who doesn’t stick to one deity for any length of time. Energy manifestations and deities usually come to her spontaneously, but she has to actively summon male deities. “My [current] spiritual quest is working with the body, move more and eat better things,” she said. “In order to get that fire and that grounding I sort of had to call on some male deities.”
Why does she associate male deities with fire? “When I think of fire, I think of the wands of the tarot, they have phallic symbols,” she explained. “They’re about asserting your will, while cups are about receiving, so it is kind of the male/female elements.” Giggling, she then confessed about her “handful of spirit boyfriends,” but she preferred not to expand on that matter.
* * *
At the end of our reiki session, Burkett visualized a mountain goat wearing a flower crown.
“The goat is associated with capricorn,” she said, paraphrasing a manual she was perusing, “and, in some instances, the goat is pictured as the devil — say, in tarot cards — so that’s about things that have power over you, the things that have control over you, your sense of willpower and agency.”
“When I think of a goat, I usually think of it as silly, like a comedy figure,” she told me. “How can we bring a sense of humor into your situation, how can we laugh about ourselves right now?”
According to the manual, mountains symbolize overcoming struggle, so seeing a mountain goat should lead us to address questions like: are you getting, or giving, the support you need as you move up to new areas? and is something wrong about the basic structure of your life?
The mountain goat’s horns give it the ability to perceive what lies ahead and, with its ability to climb, it can reveal how you can best achieve the future. “It can help you to keep focused and move, step by step, to new heights,” she read aloud. “All the while protecting you from severe life conditions.”
“So, maybe,” she said cheerfully, “that’s a good totem for that study-work pentacle card, saying, ‘One step at a time.’”
Corrections: The original version of this post was revised to correct the terminology of Burkett’s practice. It’s The Tarot or Tarot Cards, not Tarots.
The original version of this post was revised to correct the following sentence: it’s “Molly Burkett pursued Reiki certification level 1 and 2″, not “Molly Burkett began pursuing Reiki certification.”