The Star Essay

Every man and every woman is a star.
              —Aleister Crowley, Liber AL vel Legis (The Book of the Law), I:3

Hey little star, don’t be afraid
We all fall apart and make mistakes 
                                 —Robyn, “In My Eyes” 


The sun shone brightly, but the Naughty Angel had no windows. This design is typical of tiki bars, the aim to transport patrons more fully from one world (winter in Wisconsin, for example) to another (tropical bunker). At the wraparound bar, L drank a boozy milkshake while J and I drank the five-dollar special: brandy old-fashioneds. Sitting on down jackets draped over bar stools, we were intent on maintaining an altered state. This post-brunch day drinking celebrated the end of a long week of work. I had curated a group show of artists interpreting Tarot archetypes and taught a workshop about using Tarot to move past writer’s block; J and L had organized a promotional radio interview, enrolled students, and planned the opening reception. The work was pleasurable, but work nonetheless, and we were grateful to be surrounded by a whirl of wood paneling, grass skirt fringe, and wallpaper patterned with Betty Boop–style girls dressed as sailors. The tiki bar was doing the work now, offering us retreat from the whorl of our own business. Offering us refreshment, replenishment. aloha, read a sign on the wall. It was my last day in Milwaukee before I would return to Baltimore.


In the airport, I watched YouTube videos of Japanese figure skater Shoma Uno in an effort to tune out the talking heads reporting on feuds with foreign governments, people eating slices of cheese pizza and drinking sodas, and children putting their hands on the thin, gray airport terminal carpet and then in their mouths. I was surrounded by people when I wished I could ascend into the sky a lone body.


When Shoma Uno spins on the ice, I imagine the world around him recedes to a blur of indistinct color, that amidst the angular momentum, his vision softens. I imagine, in this altered state, he focuses not on what he sees but what he feels. I am neither figure skater nor physicist, but to spin in this way—to exert force, then yield to the energy (the work)—seems to hold the potential for an uncommon pleasure, a particular freedom. (Within the physicist’s world of force, energy, and work, pleasure and freedom are not part of the equation. I wish, though, I were better at yielding, able to find pleasure not only in action but in surrendering to consequence.) When Uno spins on the ice, I imagine the constellation of faces and flags in the stands, the bright lights, and the blunt advertisements that line the rink darkening and dissolving; I fantasize of this diffuse liberation; I imagine the body as its own light, shivering to shine; I imagine the body as the last remaining sensation.


I’ve seen many figure skaters finish their routines with the mechanisms of the body on display after the performance has ended. Heaving, nose dripping, waiting for a tissue from a coach, then to sit in the Kiss & Cry booth awaiting their results. I have never seen Shoma Uno’s nose run after a routine and I wonder how this is possible, as I’ve learned (painfully) that to put one’s body out there entails consequence. My Google search—Shoma Uno runny nose, Shoma Uno nose running, Shoma Uno snot, Shoma Uno sneeze—yields no image. Uno’s body does display the consequences of his actions, though usually the signs are subtler, almost demure: crimson cheeks and a deep exhale. At the end of his performance, camera zooming in, Uno’s body does not so readily betray him.


In the Tarot, the Star card represents the gift of hope, though the naked figure on the card is most often depicted emptying two pitchers of water in the void of night. This visual trope is hundreds of years old, having been replicated by makers of the Tarot since the mid-seventeenth century. In Arthur Waite’s deck, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith (1909) and now a standard among Tarot readers, the figure on the Star card drains one vessel into a rippling pool, the other vessel onto a grassy bank. Seeking to reconcile the card’s image with the card’s most simplistic meaning, I consider how the process of emptying might be hopeful, how draining one’s resources might inspire optimism. How can a void be perceived as a gift?


The Star card almost always features a naked woman alone in the universe. Her bare body is meant to evoke her willful vulnerability. In Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck, illustrated by Lady Frieda Harris between 1938 and 1943, this woman (who is often, rhetorically, referred to as the Star) notably has her face turned away from the viewer, though her body seems in motion, in mid-spin. Her gaze remains fixed upon the seven-pointed star of Venus in the middle of an overturned chalice she holds above her head, a cosmic baptism she conducts in the blue of outer space. She bathes in this star’s mauve, spiraling energy. Crowley, one of the most prominent figures in occult studies, writes of the Star in The Book of Thoth (1944): “From the golden cup she pours this ethereal water, which is also milk and oil and blood, upon her own head, indicating the eternal renewal of the categories, the inexhaustible possibilities of existence.” She is her own agent, self-anointing, and she replenishes herself with bodily fluids as celestial bodies swirl around her. At her feet are geometric crystals with a sheen like ice. Her right foot stands on the surface of one of these crystals while her left foot is half submerged (stuck) in another, as if to reinforce that vulnerability has a price—and that one might choose vulnerability in spite of the cost. That vulnerability, like gravity, is a force to be reckoned with.


The Catholic grade school I attended held a fair each spring. My friends and I used to pile into a spaceship-shaped amusement ride called the Gravitron. To enter, one of the ride’s many sides would hinge down and form a ramp as if the facet of a diamond suddenly dropped open. Once inside, we leaned against the padded panel walls and waited for the operator in the center—who was also the DJ—to spin us so fast we would be stuck in our pose. Inside the Gravitron, we could not see the outside world; inside the Gravitron we were secreted away, practically frozen in place; when the ride spun fast enough, we slid toward the sky on the panels, taking flight if only for a moment. You could, with great effort, work against gravity and dare to hold the hand of the person pressed beside you.


Often, at the end of a skate, Uno holds a stern, intense expression before it breaks and gives way to a different face altogether, an Uno who is now soft, shy, and humble in presence. This removal of the mask is one of the most thrilling parts of the performance. At the 2018 Four Continents Championships in Taipei City, Taiwan, Uno completes his performance with an arm outstretched to the audience, his eyes unyielding, peering through the spread fingers of his hand. He looks immensely powerful, as if he is summoning the applause of the audience by force. Two seconds later, his brow softens, his fingers drop, and his eyes widen, then blink. This is the moment Uno reveals himself to be vulnerable, relieved to put aside the theatrical façade.


Image of Shoma Uno at the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships 2018, Men’s Short Program, Taipei Arena in Taipei, Taiwan. Credit: Yohei Osada/AFLO
Shoma Uno at the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships 2018, Men’s Short Program, Taipei Arena in Taipei, Taiwan. Credit: Yohei Osada/AFLO SPORT/Alamy.

To visualize a constellation is to connect the dots, to discern a shape where none exists. I am trying to connect the dots here. This act is one of imagination and, if successful, manifestation, for all constellations are figments, even if through their shapes we recognize familiar narratives. This conjuring is also the magician’s trick: now you see it.


In his book De Nova Stella (1573), sixteenth-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe popularized the concept of a “new star,” what we now know to be a supernova: a rare stellar explosion, the death of a star, which, seen from earth, materializes as a bright star in the sky where no star previously existed. Tycho demonstrated that stars—and therefore the constellations we create—are not fixed in the ways we imagined them to be; they are unpredictable, subject to change, a star able to leap or bound into existence. A new star is like a gift born from night’s void. Suddenly, there is a new dot to connect. 


Something similar is afoot when I try to reconcile Uno’s face at the end of his performance with the face that forms afterward. The new face does not erase the existence of the old one—especially since I can rewind the footage. Instead, my understanding of Uno becomes increasingly layered. The past must be reckoned alongside the present.

When Tycho records the new star, he diagrams its position within the pre-existing constellation of Cassiopeia; when Harris illustrates the Star card, she paints the Star bathing in a geometry of endless possibility.


Image of The position of the 1572 supernova within the map of the constellation Cassiopeia (facsimile reprint of the 1573 original edition). Tycho Brahe, Tychonis Brahe dani, De nova stella (Copenhagen: Hauniae, 1901).
The position of the 1572 supernova within the map of the constellation Cassiopeia (facsimile reprint of the 1573 original edition). Tycho Brahe, Tychonis Brahe dani, De nova stella (Copenhagen: Hauniae, 1901).

In 1998, fifteen years old, I understood movement as a concept kept on graphing paper: two dots become a line. I would glide the tip of a pencil from one coordinate to another, guided by the x and y axes, solving my math teacher’s problems, not realizing I had my own complex, queer composition to figure out. I desired stasis: hanging out with friends in basements, working part-time at the local drug store, and eating cheeseburgers in late-night parking lots with all the other teenagers. Stasis was preferable to what I knew I did not want: the predetermined trajectory I saw all around me, an adult life encumbered with briefcases and business attire, a wife. The Gravitron might have been peak stasis.

That winter, I sat on the sofa with my mother and watched Tara Lipinski, also fifteen years old, skate in Nagano, Japan. I watched Lipinski become the youngest figure skater to win an Olympic gold medal. I watched an American girl, who had traveled to the other side of the world, feel so much joy that she screamed.


After his skate at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, on his way to the Kiss & Cry, Shoma Uno catches two gifts from fans who are off camera. One gift is a large bouquet of yellow flowers I can’t identify; the other is a single red rose in a sturdy transparent container, a slender token of love encased, petrified like Snow White in her glass coffin. In response to the love of these two invisible gift givers, Uno returns a single bow, signaling that gifts (and loves) of disproportionate size might have equal weight. He is polite and gracious while flushed, breathing heavily, and shining with sweat.

NBC sportscaster Terry Gannon calls the ice-skating program Uno just completed “business-like,” a term that also seems applicable to his interactions with his fans. Uno waits for his individual short program score to be tallied, for the grade of execution to be factored in. In figure skating, how one executes a task—a turn, jump, spin, or step sequence—can matter just as much as what one executes. Perhaps Uno is business-like in that he executes; he is an executive, wearing blue crystals, black velvet, rhinestones, and silver trim, hoping the math will work out in his favor.


In 2019, Shoma Uno decides he will skate without a coach. He will attempt to emit a light entirely alone, his own, even if that light might waver. I imagine he is returning to the source—like when the essayist who can’t seem to write the essay he’ d like to write abandons the essay and returns to reading, taking notes, and remembering little scenes of the past. He dutifully treks into the inexhaustible possibilities of existence. In writing essays, this risk doesn’t always reward. But I do not doubt that Uno’s passion will sustain him, and that certainty yields the hope that he will execute a beautiful performance, in time.

During this season with no coach, Uno wears a costume of black fabric, spanning from neck to ankle but adorned with sequins spread like stardust. The costume, designed by Mathieu Caron, is for his free skate in which he will interpret Calum Scott’s cover of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.” Uno’s head is positioned as the lonely center of a sequined galaxy. So far away but still so near, Scott sings. (The cover decidedly queers the lyrics, and rather than Robyn’s voice vying for the attention of a man preoccupied with another woman, we hear Scott confronted with the additional obstacle of the other man’s heterosexuality.) At the end of his performance at the Finlandia Trophy, Uno comes to a standstill, eyes gazing upward, marveling, mouth agape. Though I watch this facial expression form and fade—play, rewind, play, rewind, play, pause—his thoughts remain inscrutable.


Aleister Crowley linked the Star card to the Hebrew letter Heh (ה), which can mean “window,” “look,” or “behold.” Though Crowley’s attribution goes against the conventions of his contemporaries, who assigned a different Hebrew letter to the card, the letter Heh (ה) gives me some hope that through the archetype of the Star I will be able to see more than I otherwise would. That I might one day look at a man’s face and see his thoughts as clearly as if there were no glass screen between us.


A way to constellate history: Jean Noblet block printed the first known Tarot de Marseille in 1650. Above the head of the naked woman in his version of the Star card, there looms a giant eight-pointed star with eight additional rays between each point, just like Tycho’s initial illustration of the new star recorded almost a century before. Noblet’s seminal Star card image was also printed just forty-eight years after German astronomer Johannes Kepler edited Tycho’s Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata, published posthumously in 1602. In this volume, Tycho included a fleshed-out illustration of the new star’s location, now clearly positioned behind the back of a nude Cassiopeia. Kepler added his own appendix, picking up where Tycho left off, appending a new dot of knowledge and drawing his own line. Seeing the echoes within Noblet’s Tarot, one can revise the shape of the timeline again.


Illustration of Tycho’s Supernova within Cassiopeia (1572). Tycho Brahe, Tychonis Brahe Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata (1602), edited by Johannes Kepler. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
Illustration of Tycho’s Supernova within Cassiopeia (1572). Tycho Brahe, Tychonis Brahe Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata (1602), edited by Johannes Kepler. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.


In the fall of 2019, astronomers and lay observers alike noticed that the right shoulder of the constellation Orion was rapidly fading. The star, named Betelgeuse, seemed to be disappearing right before our very eyes. Now you see it, now you don’t. Supernova fever spread through the science pages of newspapers, and in January of 2020, Jonathan Corum of the New York Times published a piece titled “Waiting for Betelgeuse to Explode.” But the science beneath the headline was less sensational, as Corum confesses: “Betelgeuse will keep burning until the atoms in its core finally fuse into iron and the star runs out of fuel. When that will happen is unknown—perhaps next year, perhaps 100,000 years from now.” Diminished vibrancy does not predict imminent destruction or death; a star needn’t shine with equal intensity at all times to hold its place in the sky.


At the 2019 Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, Shoma Uno, wearing Caron’s galaxy costume, crashes to the ice after his first jump attempt, a quadruple Salchow. He doesn’t achieve enough height to complete all four rotations. The fall is more than falter; it is failure. On film, an audience member groans, loud and empathetic. But in figure skating, even failure receives applause. The audience claps in response, in encouragement, to bring the star back to life. What looks like death needn’t be so. Amid the clapping, with a spin, Uno is on his skates again. Forty seconds later, he executes a beautiful triple axel. Uno shines once more.


“Apparently a star can sneeze,” writes Dennis Overbye of the New York Times in an August 2020 article. In an email to Overbye, Dr. Andrea Dupree, associate director of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, says: “We suspect that there was a confluence of a big convective cell on the surface and also the outward radial velocity that acted together to eject this material.” The ejected “sneezed” material then cooled to a dark dust cloud that cast a shadow on the star. This “stellar exhalation,” as the article names it, temporarily distorts a star’s brilliance. The star’s erratic heaving impairs our ability to see the star in all its brightness.


When working with the past, a writer strives to constellate, to make sense of seemingly disparate and unrelated notes or events. (The airport, the Gravi-tron, Tara Lipinski’s scream, and in the pages yet to come, a lake in the Pocono Mountains, baby powder, and a Christmas play.) When working with the present, a writer strives to embrace the biggest obstacle of all: doubt. The worry that nothing will come to him, that the page might remain blank as a sheet of ice, that the tense present might not yield, might not thaw, to become the future for which he hopes.

There was a version of this essay in which I wrote about a cold winter when my body betrayed me. A version in which mucus runs uncontrollably down my face as I run home from the bus stop and feel all eyes on me. A version in which I am ashamed of my body’s display but unwilling to sacrifice the sleeve of my coat. There is a version of this essay in which I reveal on the essay’s very first page the thing I may never be ready to tell: I am obsessively watching Shoma Uno in the airport as a distraction; the reason I am thinking about the body the last remaining sensation is that I have just learned, that very morning, that a lover has given me chlamydia; and I am, at that very moment, experiencing the consequent symptoms—the physical manifestation of a previously imperceptible phenomenon.


Aleister Crowley writes of the Star: “she is the Scarlet Woman, the sacred Harlot. . . .”


The Major Arcana of the Tarot illustrates pivotal, universal life experiences through the first twenty-two cards of the deck, referred to by some practitioners as Keys. The narrative progression of the Keys is commonly called the Fool’s Journey, and the Star is the seventeenth Key of the sequence. The card arrives as a moment of revised understanding after two of the darkest cards in the deck: the Devil (XV) and the Tower (XVI).

The name on the sixteenth Noblet card is la maison dieu (The House of God), printed well before the Tower received its current name, and depicts a tower, topped with a crown, breaking apart. Two humans are tossed to the earth while a mysterious celestial event burns bright up above, the firmament strewn with dots that could be rubble, stars, or raining flame. By the time Pamela Colman Smith illustrated her version of the card over 250 years later, the basic elements of the Tower had been replicated by countless European deck makers, the imagery standardized, and a lightning bolt clearly discernible as the cause of the Tower’s destruction; however, in Noblet’s original card that conclusion isn’t clear.


Image of Noblet's Tower
Jean Noblet, XVI La Maison Dieu, c. 1650. Tarot cards, 9.2 × 5.7 cm each. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Image of Noblet's Star
Jean Noblet, XVII Lestoille, c. 1650. Tarot cards, 9.2 × 5.7 cm each. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.











Given the historical proximity of Kepler’s republication of Tycho, it seems quite possible Noblet intended to depict the shock of a new star within the House of God. What does seem indisputable is that a seismic shift is taking place. The man-made tower crumbles—there is no stasis when it comes to man—and the heavens reign supreme. This toppling of presumed power is also precisely what happened to our man-made knowledge of the universe when Tycho recorded the appearance of a new star. Our idea that constellations were complete and immutable within the celestial spheres had been destroyed, and a new conception of order needed to be imagined.

Then, centuries later, we watch Betelgeuse (like Uno) rebound: to dim, then to brighten once again. Like a body in recovery.

The new star—or any new stellar event—precipitates a leveling of knowledge so that we might build a stronger hypothesis, a stronger narrative. After the fall of the Tower, our outdated structure of knowledge now void, we might find solace in the new star, which in the case of Noblet’s Tarot might also be the cause of destruction in the first place. We might find consolation in the possibility of a fresh start, in the hope of getting it right this time around. Seen in this way, the Star is a welcomed sigh of relief in the sequence of cards, the unexpected and disruptive gift of a new sight to behold.


At the 2018 Olympic games, Shoma Uno skates to “Winter” by Antonio Vi-valdi for his short program. Uno’s costume for the team event (different from the one he will wear for the men’s singles event) begins pitch black at the ankle and, by waist, begins to fan out in branches adorned with sequins and crystals, veins of purple and silver, with fabric that lifts like leaves from the torso. The effect is of a lavender foliage miraculously emerging from the frost. As Uno takes to the ice, Canadian broadcasters explain that he is now Japan’s “go-to man,” since Yuzuru Hanyu is tending an injury. (Uno finds himself always in Hanyu’s shadow, and this is a unique opportunity to disrupt that order, to however temporarily displace that crown.) “If he can be the skater that carries that beautiful warmup . . . into his skate, he will be the star tonight.”


Pamela Colman Smith modeled her illustration of the Star, now arguably the most famous from a century of widespread distribution, after the Marseille tradition. A woman is crouched down with her left knee on land and her right foot not in the water but balanced on the rippled surface, as if the water were a frozen sheet of ice, as if she were capable of miracles.


“His knees are his strength; he can save anything,” says former American figure skater Johnny Weir, commenting on Shoma Uno’s short program for the men’s singles event at the 2018 Olympics.


At the 2018 Skate Canada International in Laval, Quebec, Uno skates his short program to a cover of “Stairway to Heaven.” Eurosport analyst Mark Hanretty remarks, “He makes the most beautiful line on the ice.” For his free skate, Uno chooses “Moonlight Sonata,” continuing the celestial motif. “He is known for his deep edges,” says Tara Lipinski, herself now a figure skating sportscaster for NBC. “The deep sweeping long lines and edges he creates in this program.”


In figure skating, there are two scores—the technical and the component—just as in writing there is the content and the style. Elizabeth Hardwick once likened the style of an essayist to “the soloist’s personal signature flowing through the text.” Great style, like all great work, is a flow rarely effortless.

With Shoma Uno, we can see his struggle, which is to say the physical effort and exertion, of the skate. We can see the attempt. (We know the word essay in verb form means to put to the test, but the verb assay is also defined as to try by touch—and in this sense, the essay, like skating, can be seen as not merely a mental but also a physical endeavor.) Yuzuru Hanyu typically skates in a way that looks effortless—and while beautiful, seems inhuman. Uno is the human skater, and we witness his physical bid for grace. He’s called the “skater’s skater” by sportscasters, often retired skaters themselves who see Uno grapple with gravity. They know his personal struggles sometimes yield a unique stylistic splendor that surpasses any sure thing.


Pamela Colman Smith’s Star is not bent over the pool of water with the purpose of looking at her own reflection. Her pose is no narcissistic impulse. Though naked, she is not navel-gazing—a common criticism of the personal essayist. She is engaged in the act of pouring forth, of cosmic sighing, of possible relief. As the stream from the jug of water ripples the surface of the pond, she gazes at the outward concentric circles. It is an expansion, a growth, from the starting point, the source. 


My brother and I were not supposed to walk on the frozen lake of the Poconos unsupervised, cautioned with tales of children slipping below the surface. We would conduct a test to see if the ice was safe, if the freeze was thick enough to hold us, by throwing stones. First small ones we could fling, then larger ones we would hurl.

One winter, my foot plunged through a hole in the ice. My leg submerged up to the knee, my boot immediately soaked through. Frostbite, I feared. Someone had been ice fishing and cut out a hole precisely the size of a child. I had mistakenly thought myself to be safe, though I could see the water bubbling below the freeze, visibly fluid, shadows shifting what seemed a galaxy away.

As a child, I believed the physical body was all about fear. Relief, I imagined, largely had to do with staying put and stalling time. I hadn’t yet learned from the Star that exposure and vulnerability are prerequisites for clarity and connection, for finding one’s footing in the world. I was far from learning how to seek comfort in queer spaces, how to put my body at ease.

Even with one foot below the ice’s surface, I was nothing like Crowley’s Star who thrives with one foot bound within a space crystal, a figure not only comfortable but empowered by her own openness. How many times has her celestial body served as a point of connection within the larger matrix of an utterly human image, our human imagination? She could become anything, anyone we desire.

Crowley’s Star is anointing herself, declaring her body her own sacrament in a way I wouldn’t be able to imagine for decades. What I knew of sacrament and oil had to do with Pentecostal fire, red robes, and being invested by the Holy Spirit, which seems the polar opposite of being one’s own resource.


During Uno’s poorest skate in recent memory, his free skate at the 2019 Internationaux de France, he fell four times and placed ninth. Audience members screamed Shoma! in pain. Yet even with those four falls, ranked only by the component score, he would have placed fourth, so strong is his style, his artistry. As I watch, the audience claps, fall after fall: we believe. There is an as above, so below magic to the way Uno skates, and in this way we are viscerally linked. I hold my breath for Uno when he jumps as if I am diving under water; when he returns to the surface, I breathe.


Shoma Uno’s name, written in the Japanese kanji, is 宇野昌磨. Because the first name, Shoma, can be written using many different combinations of kanji (sho and ma represented by separate and variable characters), there are many possible meanings/translations of the name depending upon which kanji are chosen for the person. One user (handle: neroline) of the online discussion board informs eager readers that there were over three hundred possible variants of Shoma’s first name his parents had to choose from. Shoma Uno’s name is written as 昌磨. I look up the kanji in a Japanese-English dictionary to confirm neroline’s translation (“shines gently” and “care to make it beautiful”). Sho (昌): prosperous, bright, clear; ma (磨): grind, polish, scour, improve, brush. I am pleased to find something of the Star in Shoma’s given name. The brightness and clarity that comes from the hard work of polishing, the hope that a repeated action yields refinement. Uno (宇野) has an equally provocative translation (which neroline simplifies to “the vast field”). 宇: eaves, roof, house, heaven; 野: plains, field, rustic, civilian life. Heaven vaulted soundly over earth, simple and complete. Together, they call to mind that Aquarian, star-laden axiom: As above, so below.


One of Shoma Uno’s signature moves is called the cantilever. This element is performed by turning each foot outward while bending at the knees and leaning backward, the back parallel to the ice and the face toward the sky. The element isn’t worth any substantial number of points. It is performed, instead, as flare for an audience eager to applaud. When Uno performs the cantilever, he reaches one hand back and down to skim the ice, the other hand often reaching high up above.


The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult group founded in London in 1888, associated the Star card with the astrological sign Aquarius. Aquarius can be confusing to the novice astrology enthusiast as she is the water-bearer but also an air sign. The glyph for Aquarius is commonly written as a doubled ripple, wave-like:

Double wave graphic

This glyph also resembles the mathematical symbol that means approximately equal (≈), a mathematical symbol I always loved as it seemed to leave room for human error, for a surge of excitement or an onset of fatigue. Approximately equal is also the work of simile and metaphor, which ultimately is also the work of angles. What is a metaphor but the leaning of one idea against another to see what stands?


I loved to build card houses as a child, as my patience and care would shine amid my more primal, bullish classmates. To begin a house of cards, one carefully forms the shape of a “T” with two cards, balancing both on their thin edges, and leaning one card’s middle against the edge of the other for support. This first formation with the two cards is known as the “key,” which serves as a type of cornerstone for the rest of the construction. Angling is the key, the hope, the base of the whole endeavor.

But after the formation of the key, there were no more schematics to follow. Instead, I would lean a third card, then a fourth, then a fifth wherever seemed most likely to hold. Seen from above, the card house often looked more like a labyrinth for a laboratory mouse than any space one might call a home. Though there were times I successfully added a flat roof to the whole structure and began with a new key on a second level.


Shoma Uno performs a cantilever while skating to Calum Scott’s cover of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2021, Men’s Free Program, Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden. Credit: Raniero Corbelletti/AFLO SPORT/Alamy.
Shoma Uno performs a cantilever while skating to Calum Scott’s cover of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2021, Men’s Free Program, Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden. Credit: Raniero Corbelletti/AFLO SPORT/Alamy.


With the Tarot, this fragile leaning also takes place, as the Tarot reader attempts to construct a cohesive narrative from each new spread of cards. Common Tarot spreads contain three to ten cards, each position in the layout aimed to provide a specific insight for the querent. When one card is turned over and laid next to another, what story do they spell? Yes, there are guidebooks in which one can learn the general meanings for each card individually, but even these reference texts can contradict each other wildly. The objective is to read the cards in relationship to one another. The seventy-eight cards can appear in any combination, variants not chosen but instead revealed. Adding to that labyrinth, Tarot readers are creating new spreads with nuanced card positions all the time, adapting centuries-old archetypes to the querent’s contemporary circumstances. The story and the timeline are always in flux.


In his book The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages (1947), Paul Foster Case, a member of the Golden Dawn, tells us the Star is associated with the Hebrew letter Tzaddi (צ), meaning fish-hook. “Now, a fish-hook is a symbol of angling,” Case writes. “Thus in our thought it is related to the ideas of experimentation, quest and research. It is a quest for that which is not definitely realized as yet, a sort of groping, a feeling of one’s way, that we speak of as ‘fishing.’ ” I like the way “fish-hook” is hyphenated in Case’s writing, as the hyphen does the mimetic work of connecting the fish to the hook, causing the noun to take on verb-like qualities. In hyphenated form, the word is engaged in the act of angling. A fish-hook itself echoes the shape of a question mark, albeit inverted (¿)—the curve, the eyelet for the line. (To quest is implicit in any question.) Therefore, the shape of the fish-hook is the essayist’s shape: one with the potential to enter at an angle, to ripple the surface, to resonate.


When you fish upon a star.


When I perform a Google search for Shoma Uno, the first suggestion is shoma uno height. This is not what I am looking for, but I learn his center of gravity sits low to the ice. When I toggle Google to show only images, a grid of Shoma Uno appears, limbs at all angles, radiating out from his core.


Without the ability to read or speak a word of Japanese, I understand that Shoma Uno is adored by a legion of fans. There are innumerable fan accounts dedicated to the skater on Instagram, though Uno himself has no account. On Instagram, the Uno fans grasp at any new image and marvel over and over again at the old. Uno eating ramen. Uno eating cake. Uno with his brother. Uno exercising during quarantine. Uno pushing a shopping cart. Uno playing videogames. Uno playing with a cat in a parking lot even though he is allergic. Uno staring wide-eyed into the eyes of his fluffy miniature poodle. Uno holding up two boxes of almond chocolates, like offerings we desire but are unable to accept through the screen of a cellphone.


On Tumblr, someone posts an image of Uno mid-spin, his right arm stretched back across the body, his right hand firmly holding his left skate at head-level, his left leg held up in the shape of a hook. His left hand resting gently on his chest. His pose is twisted, which, if my yoga teacher is correct, creates an emotional release through a physical contraction. Uno is speculative, inquisitive. His eyes slightly narrowed and his mouth slightly open, as if focusing one facial feature triggers a softening elsewhere. This is balance. I think: this pose is what it means to be alive. The Tumblr caption reads: “Shoma Uno’s spins are to die for.”


Shoma Uno fans have uploaded amateur videos of his skating programs to YouTube using a filter that accentuates reflected light. Under this filter, the sequins on Uno’s costumes sparkle and flare, brightness added to brightness. There is a desire to see Uno as more luminous, to exaggerate his star qualities so that the viewers of the amateur videos might see Uno the way the devout fan does—a radiant hybrid of the human and the otherworldly, the kind, sensitive face of a young man on which to place our own ambitions and our hopes. As the subject of our amateur videos, our dreams, when Uno succeeds, we succeed. At least for the duration of that video, we place all our jewels in one casket.


Shoma Uno’s spins are to die for.


The word chlamydia comes from the Greek, χλαμύς or χλαμύδ-, which translates to mantle or cloak, calling to mind the robes of a magician. In the Tarot, the outer garment of the Magician is very often red, which Case says represents “desire, passion and activity.” This red mantle covers the white, inner robe “representing the light of perfect wisdom.” It should come as no surprise that desire shrouds wisdom, that the Magician (singular, magus; plural, magi) strives to keep secrets. What the Magician manifests has really been hiding there for quite some time. He’s more rogue trickster than sage shaman. In an instant, chlamydia seems snapped into being, the signs suddenly (painfully) clear, but the infection had been tucked up the sleeve for days, maybe weeks. Antibiotics are the cure for this trick. Now you see it, now you don’t. 


During high school, I worked at the local drug store. As employees, we wore red aprons with deep pockets in which we concealed candy and box cutters. Once, terribly bored, my fellow teenagers and I locked our boss inside the bathroom, wedging the door shut with a utility cart in the back room. Surely someone must have been manning the register up front? But the rest of us went to the basement, where the overstock items were stored, and emptied a case of baby powder across the concrete floor. The fine white powder enabled us to glide—to skate—with the joy of any holiday. While our boss wept and called his mother from within the locked bathroom, we smiled, laughed, experienced the bliss of moving without walking, experienced, for a moment, a freedom typically beyond our grasp. When we tired, we could see where we had “skated,” our sneakers having left dark lines where we had slid across the powder-covered concrete. Our diagram of delinquency.


Crowley is frequently mislabeled a Satanist, though he is the founder of the new religious movement Thelema, in which one tries to unite their individual will with the universe. This practice, referred to as the Great Work, strongly echoes the aim of Jewish and Christian mystics who wish to reunite with God. Contrary to popular belief, the history of Tarot is firmly rooted in medieval Christian imagery and ideals. The earliest Tarot decks contain a card that represents the Pope as well as a card that depicts a female Pope, who is considered by some to be an allegorical image of the Church itself.

The three theological virtues of Christianity—Faith, Hope, and Charity—are a unique feature of the Visconti di Modrone (Cary-Vale) Tarocchi deck. (Tarocchi is the Italian, which predates the French Tarot.) The Visconti di Modrone is one of the three oldest decks still in existence—all three incomplete and commissioned in the mid-1400s—and it is the only deck that includes cards for these theological virtues. Many believe the virtue of Hope, embodied on the card as a woman kneeling in prayer, to be an early version of the Star. Others believe Hope and the Star were separate cards, but there is no card for the Star in this incomplete deck, so the answer to the mystery remains unknowable, locked.

Hope kneels with silver leaf starbursts on her robe, palms held together in prayer, face lifted toward a gilt celestial body above. The pose of her body mirrors that of the Hebrew letter Tzaddi (צ), which the Golden Dawn would ascribe to the Star centuries after this image of Hope was illustrated. An anchor is tied around Hope’s wrists, binding her hands in prayer. As I’ve come to expect of hope, there is always an accompanying vulnerability, a willful submission or exposure.

I find consolation in this anchor, which alludes to the Bible verse: “Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil” (KJV Hebrews 6:19). If hope is the anchor of the soul, then hope, like an anchor (or a soul), is a decidedly human business. Hope is the desire that our expectations will be met, if not today, then someday. Hope is a process, both sure and stedfast, that promises a world beyond this veil, that promises there is more than we can ever see with certainty. And without a landmark on the horizon, a sailor has no record of where he has been, no guide for where he might go, save the stars.


Image of The untitled “Hope” card from the Tarocchi Visconti di Modrone, otherwise known as the Cary-Yale pack, c. 1428–1447, attributed to Bonifacio Bembo. 19 × 9 cm. Courtesy of Yale University Library.
The untitled “Hope” card from the Tarocchi Visconti di Modrone, otherwise known as the Cary-Yale pack, c. 1428–1447, attributed to Bonifacio Bembo. 19 × 9 cm. Courtesy of Yale University Library.


After Shoma Uno’s free skate at the 2019 Japanese Figure Skating Championships, the Japanese televised version shows an animated diagram of the rink, pointing to where Uno began his skate. A line then races around the rink, the color of the line changing to correlate to his speed, the dot that represents Uno pinging and spinning in the places where he performed his jumps, his rotations, his elements, till finally the dot comes to a stop where Uno’s routine came to an end, not terribly far from where it began.

When I see this animated diagram of the ice-skating routine, the line connecting the dots, the constellation of elements Uno has created, I think of how the essay, as it is being written, loops, retraces, moves left, then right, then left again. In the end, the essay may not have moved very far from where it began. But that small distance does not negate the possibility of performance.


In a short paragraph about writing, found in her 2015 hybrid-genre memoir The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson says: “I collect these moments. I know they hold a key. It doesn’t matter to me if the key must remain perched in a lock, incipient.” Nelson is less concerned with endings and more concerned with beginnings and possibilities, or, to return once more to Aleister Crowley’s words, the inexhaustible possibilities of existence. Nelson’s relationship to moments is ideal when researching Tarot’s murky history, when interpreting an individual card, or when trying to read a spread. Making sense is a matter of context, and there will always be a Tycho shaking down our towers of matter—past, present, or future. 

The history of Tarot is difficult to convey, because there is no definitive proof of origin or timeline. There are theories with no consensus, though some are certainly more believable and well-researched than others. Paper deteriorates easily. Cards go missing. Colors fade. One of the oldest decks that still exists was reportedly found at the bottom of a well. I’ve heard a convincing theory that the four missing cards from the Visconti-Sforza deck were burned in a spell cast by a young medieval aristocrat to overcome her heartbreak. Or, if one prefers, you can imagine her act of grief as a prayer.

All these gaps—these missing moments—create opportunities for imagined, then reimagined narratives. For a long stretch of time, Tarot’s history had been intentionally obscured in the late 1800s and early 1900s by occult figures who fancied the idea that the cards originated in Egypt, a theory that for all intents and purposes has been disproven. All to say that the tradition of Tarot is rooted in layered mystery, and as one does when dealing with any mystery (or science), one must accept a certain degree of unknowing.

Tarot asks the reader to consider the moments we can see or remember as valuable in and of themselves, because those moments are Keys. Not Keys to the future, but Keys for present-tense consideration. Certainties and conclusions are elusive, so instead Nelson places her hope, her faith, in the process. Process takes precedent over any ultimate unlocking.


I played the Star of David in our eighth-grade production of the Christmas nativity. The star was made of cardboard, wrapped in tinfoil, and attached to a wooden pole—likely a broom handle—so that I could hold the star above my head as I slowly marched down the center aisle of the cold, marble church. I cannot remember what the Star of David was doing there, nor can I remember if I felt typecast as the only person in my class who had Jewish blood mixed in his veins. The Christmas lights that were attached to the cardboard star were not working come show time, so the star and I did not shine as we were meant to, a dull embarrassment. There were other stars in this celestial procession, as everyone was required to play a role and there were only so many magi, only so many gifts to bestow. The Star of Bethlehem, which modern-day astronomers have tried to identify as a supernova, a new star, was the showstopper, streaming with tinsel. The less fortunate among us were cast as sheep. During rehearsals, I processed down the center aisle of the church again and again, this process a key in a lock, incipient.


And I’m right over here, why can’t you see me? Scott sings.


When showing videos of Shoma Uno to friends, I become much more aware of his missteps. When his chin dips too close to the ice, when a foot swings too low, when a hand accidentally drops to stabilize. I want my friends to want him to succeed as much as I do. When watching alone, the missteps are endearing and I root for his success, not in spite of but because of. With company, my desire for Uno to skate better betrays my fear that others won’t love him like I do, for who he is rather than for who he might become. In this regard, loving Uno is no different than loving anyone in their early twenties: one can either love them for their present selves or for who one imagines—imposes—they will become in the future. Falling for a man in his early twenties, his red hair worn like a coy mantle of desire, is likely what led to the consequence of chlamydia, but now so close to the end, the end result does not matter so much. Future expectations for another person are the downfall of many a relationship; if one must think of the future at all, better to work, instead, on oneself. 

Uno dutifully fulfills his press obligations, smiling nervously, talking softly. I want everyone to leave him alone after he leaves the ice, as he is sweating, exhausted. Newscasters with microphones try to squeeze a little more out of him. Like most skaters, he is hard on himself, rarely satisfied with his performance.


I wonder how many people still wish upon stars, as we see stars less and less frequently. I doubt a star is conscious of what feeds her. She emits light, not reflected like the moon but from an internal source, a wellspring that lasts and lasts until one day it does not. The star dies before we can know her, light sent to earth long after the star herself has burned out. But until then, a star is her own resource.


I’ d like to think, if we are patient, that we work on ourselves unconsciously. Not as a substitute for all the conscious work, but in addition to.


If I could trade places with Shoma Uno, trade writing for figure skating, I would do it without hesitation. I’ d trade pens for skates. The pencil’s scribble for the toe pick’s scrape. White page for clean ice. I know both the ice and the page are unforgiving. I know both beg for a mark to be made. I know success requires one to chip away at convention, to push against comfort with a question or a blade. I would wait for the music to begin; I would wait to turn energy, all potential, into kinetic artistry; I would be ready to explode.


After we left the Naughty Angel, I showed J and L the Japanese broadcast of Shoma Uno at the 2019 Japanese Figure Skating Championships while we sat on the sofa, drank mescal, and ate tacos. Cast onto their projection screen, Uno is skating once again to “Dancing on My Own,” this time in a new costume, a rich blue shirt with geometric nude cut-outs over his chest where his heart belongs. And I’m giving it my all, but I’m not the guy you’re taking home, Scott sings. Uno is beautiful and he skates beautifully. J and L and I all cried. We had all had a long week, worked hard, and we were tired. After his performance, when Uno learns that he has beaten Yuzuru Hanyu for the first time in his career, Uno also cries. Hanyu shakes Uno by the shoulders, as if to say: look, this is real. Uno was already a star, but in this moment, his light shines in a way that is newly recognized. With the shock of beating Hanyu, Uno occupies a revised position, his placement in the skating universe reconceived.

Hanyu yields, joyfully, and seems more human for doing so. Hanyu’s body proved imperfect, yet he smiles, beaming in a way I wish I could muster in those moments my body reveals its fragility.

Before I got on an airplane the next morning, J placed a tiny bottle of Purell in my hand, so that in the airport I might feel calm. On my cellphone’s small screen, I watched Shoma Uno, body in slow motion, enter a flying camel spin, limbs held out like rays.


Laurence Ross is a writer and teacher living in Baltimore. He has published his art writing and essays in many journals and magazines, including Brevity, Bluestem, The Offending Adam, Hyperallergic, BmoreArt, Pelican Bomb, and HuffPost. In 2020, he curated “Tarot: The (Re)Making of a Language,” a visual art exhibition at Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee. “The Star Essay” is part of a larger collection-in-progress that blends personal narrative, esoteric studies, and cultural criticism.