When All Else Fails, Go Back to School
AKA: How a gay witch, a Harvey Weinstein scandal, and a Tarot reading led me to Divinity School.
In December of 2019, after much agony, maneuvering, and many desperate attempts at salvation, I decided to finally walk away from my job as the editor-in-chief of Out Magazine. I remember squinting to see the silver lining in leaving behind health insurance and a steady paycheck just one week before Christmas Eve. It will be alright, I told myself. 2020 is going to be my Year of Yes! Three months later, in what we now know as only the beginning of the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, New York City issued its first shelter-in-place orders.
It was around that time that a job offer came for my fiancé, who was working as an ER doctor in Queens. The position required a move to Los Angeles, and with it, a chance at a completely new start. Darien had always wanted to try living on the West Coast, and we figured the worst of the pandemic would be behind us by the time we moved in June. Most importantly, it was a clean slate for the both of us—an opportunity to start over, and to leave behind the memories and habits that we associated with New York City. What if we left our relentless ambition and 24/7 lifestyles behind to go live on the beach?
At first, California was exactly the balm I needed. Even as we stayed masked and distanced, there were so many opportunities to be out and about in the world. We hiked, went to the beach, and had picnics. We drove up and down the coast just so we could take in the awesomeness of the geography. We went to farmer’s markets and marveled at how beautiful the produce is (seriously, I’m not sure there’s anything else like it). Our relationship felt solid and stronger than ever, as though the cross-country move forced a sort of camaraderie that our busy lives in New York didn’t exactly foster. All the time in the sun and actually eating healthy caused my psoriasis to magically clear up. Most importantly, after six years of being in a relationship together, we finally felt like we made a home.
Of course, there was still something missing—naggingly, annoyingly so. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was until it arrived in my inbox at some point late last fall. “A new frontier is here. Should we talk?” read the e-mail from a man I’d never met, asking for a phone call. A new magazine was launching in the United States, and I was “a top candidate they were considering” for the role of editor-in-chief. When I got on the phone, I was impressed by the scope of the details laid out: a strategy for launch was already in place, revenue targets seemed both realistic and solid, and the budgets sounded much more generous than what I was used to. My requests to get everything on paper were welcomed, and follow-up calls were scheduled with an executive in charge of finances. They were even willing to let me work remotely from Los Angeles until the rest of the world returned to office life after the worst of the pandemic was behind us.
Despite myself, I was dreaming of the future again—of cover images, building out a team, coming up with ideas for columnists and social media. I’d been in lockdown for so long that I forgot what it felt like to be excited about creating something. Even though I knew better, I got my hopes up. Way up. This felt like just the opportunity I needed to start over.
An LA friend recommended that I seek some extra-special help for manifesting this new adventure, so I met with (who else?) a gay witch in Silver Lake. I was relieved to learn he was also an ex-fashion industry devotee, and now here he was all the way across the country, surrounded by massive crystals, burning sage, and a whole coterie of happy and helpful queer witches. He was incredibly tall, with long, straight black hair, and a voice that sounded like Kathleen Turner had smoked a pack of Camels. Unsure of where to begin, I asked him for anything that would bring about big dreams and positive energy. As he guided me through his shop, he told me that sometimes immediate opportunities are actually clever disguises for bigger ones. “Whenever you’re manifesting,” he said, “end it by saying, ‘If not this, then something else.’” I bought a $600 crystal to thank him for his time.
Looking back on it, I wonder if he sensed something that I wasn’t ready to. There was this nagging voice in the back of my head that kept warning me: this all seems too good to be true. A part of me hoped this was just my past trauma speaking. Less than a year earlier, I’d left the massive mess that is OutMagazine, which is tragically owned by a heterosexual man with financial ties to anti-gay politicians. I didn’t follow the money when I first took that job—instead, I took the CEO at his word—and it resulted in the worst heartbreak of my career. I will never forget the hushed phone call I received from an executive just two months into my job there: “I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’ve been lied to. And I don’t even know how we’re going to make payroll next week.” It was the day before Christmas Eve.
This time, I wouldn’t make the same mistake. I listened to the voice in my head, pulled out my phone, and made some phone calls. The money, it turned out, wasn’t all that hard to follow. And in one case, it led all the way to a scandal involving Harvey Weinstein. “Honey, I love you and I know you want this,” a mentor said after breaking the news to me. “But if you take this job, you will hate yourself for it.” The little voice in my head was back again, telling me once again what I already knew: She’s right.
You’d think that doing the right thing would feel really good, but in my experience, it rarely does—at least not in the moment. I spent the next couple of weeks feeling sorry for myself and wondering what, if any, opportunities would come next. I also kept wondering if the best of my life or my career was already behind me. Was I a one-hit wonder—the Natalie Imbruglia of magazines? (No disrespect intended to Ms. Imbruglia.)
I’d spent a year licking my wounds and soul-searching for what I wanted from my future. I even ran away, all the way to California, for a chance at starting over. Was the best I could do really another fashion magazine? Did I really come this far just to do the same old thing all over again? Eventually, the witch’s words started to echo in my head: If not this, then something else.
The “something else” came a lot sooner than I anticipated—in this case, via a casual aside on FaceTime with my friend Cleo. “Are you still booking guests for your podcast?” she asked. “I need you to meet my friend Casper [ter Kuile]. He went to HDS. You’d love him.” I’d never heard of HDS, so I typed it into Google and about halfway down the page, there it was: Harvard Divinity School. One or two quick clicks and I learned that in 2021, HDS planned to launch a brand-new, one-year program called the Masters of Religion and Public Life. The applications were due in two weeks. With Cleo still chatting away on FaceTime, I started to look at the requirements. I could do this, I thought.
I know this whole newsletter, even the title, is a slight mockery of the fact that I’m getting a Masters in Religion. When I’m not completely overwhelmed by paperwork or the idea of living in a dorm room, I also laugh about it sometimes. In reality, though, a Masters felt like a really great choice. I’d been working on my weekly podcast, Unholier Than Thou, so I already had some level of reporting or creation in the religion space. I had also just inked a book deal that would require a lot of introspective writing about my upbringing and how it led me to where I am. And finally, I’m born and raised in Boston—so the whole thing is a bizarre, twisted little homecoming of sorts. A year to dive into study, get challenged intellectually, and hopefully do some healing along the way felt like a total relief. It was a way to hop completely off the career track and see where my spirit, not my ego, wants to take me.
I was secretive about the application process, refusing to divulge any details to anyone who didn’t need to know. I went dark on my friends when they asked what I was up to. I was terrified to reveal too much even to Darien, since the very front page of the application process clearly stated that all students would be expected to be on campus in Cambridge by the fall. (We had just settled into our new apartment in LA, and here I was, dreaming about a potential exit.)
Honestly, though, I really didn’t want to tell many people because I was terrified of being let down all over again. Instead, I went back to the witch in Silver Lake in the hopes that I could somehow enlist his magic for the admissions process. I sat down across from him and watched as his hands, adorned with turquoise rings and stacks of heavy beaded bracelets, whizzed across his Tarot deck. Before turning over any of the cards, he asked what I was here for. I told him about Harvard, and how badly I wanted it, but that I was afraid.
“What is there to be afraid of?” he asked.
“Well, of getting my hopes up, I guess,” I said.
He threw the deck onto the table. “What is that about?” he said, his voice raising. I felt small, suddenly, like I was the Hobbit who’d pissed off Gandalf. “I’m so tired of hearing this from everybody. I don’t want to get my hopes up. Why? What is so bad about being hopeful?”
Now, his long, straight black hair was practically flying as his hands gestured towards the sky. “There is nothing wrong with telling the universe or the gods or whatever exactly what you want. You have to say it out loud! Because even if it doesn’t work out, at least you know exactly what you want. At least you know you’re ready for a change. And now the world will know it, too.”
“It never hurt anybody to hope. I think we could use a lot more of it these days,” he said. I was stunned into silence. I sat with my legs crossed, a smile of complete disbelief spread across my face. I looked back at Darien, who had begrudgingly and mockingly come along for the trip, and tried not to laugh as he nodded his head furiously in agreement. The witch then gazed at me slowly, appearing very satisfied with himself, and shuffled his deck. The first card he pulled was titled “Victory.”
I sent in my application just before the deadline, lighting a candle (as the witch instructed) to honor the intention. I think that it’s the most reverent I have ever been before a big life change. Everything else—the first internship at Teen Vogue to the first job at that magazine to launching them—seemed to happen by such a deliberate and calculated force of will. This somehow felt very different. Darien watched nervously as the candle flickered, still not entirely convinced that I wasn’t “bringing the Devil into his house.”
“I can’t believe you’re getting into Harvard,” he said.
“You don’t know that,” I replied.
“Of course I do,” he said.
Three months later, I woke up early enough to watch the sun slowly drench the ocean in a golden glow. (I don’t think I’ll miss much about Los Angeles—but I will miss that.) I lit a candle and pulled my own Tarot card for the day. To my dismay, it was The Hierophant, a card otherwise known as the High Priest. His meanings vary, but they typically tend to mean higher education, institutions, orthodoxy, conformity, and religion. I frowned at him, not exactly sure why he chose to appear or what he was supposed to mean.
When I finally opened my computer, a message was waiting for me in my inbox. Congratulations, it read. You have been accepted to Harvard Divinity School.