Tarot Will Teach You

Until this year, I had not touched a tarot deck since high school. That was a long time ago, and I took very few things seriously back then. I guess I take very few things seriously now, but I am at least a more dedicated researcher (often to the point that I never finish whatever project it was I was doing the research for). In the past couple of years, not coincidentally and as part of what has turned out to be a larger social trend, I’ve begun to dust off a number of interests that were either lying dormant or handled in a casual manner. The great cosmic bundle that includes magic, Paganism, mysticism, the occult, magic, and folklore has occupied space in my brain for as long as I can remember, and probably longer than that. My relationship with these things, with the possible exception of folklore, has always been casual, however. I occupied that space of knowing a little bit about a lot of things without ever really knowing all that much.

But, like many, as the human race continues to reel about in its own filth, and perhaps because I’m getting older, I’ve begun to rethink my association with certain customs and interests and take study of them a little more seriously. When it comes to things of an occult (or at least occultish) nature, I find myself in a position that is in no way unique. I am a lifetime atheist. I don’t believe that the Old Gods are actual beings, I don’t believe spells manifest as actual magical powers. I don’t believe that reading tarot cards is a mystical gift. But I do believe in the power of ritual, and I believe in the power of a story. I believe in certain magical practices and rites as a framework for understanding oneself and as a way to structure thought. I believe in spells as a way to take a step back and think about a situation, or as a way to just take a moment to focus. And if at times I find one my interests contradicts another, oh well. I’ll live.

This is how tarot works for me. As a daily ritual that sparks a dedicated period for me to think about what’s been happening, would could happen, what I want to happen, and how I go about dealing with it all. Previously, tarot cards were not much more than a prop, something every spooky goth teenager was expected to have handy. I put very little effort into them, and as a result, they had no real value to me beyond that of a lifestyle affectation. These days, however, I’m much more interested in thinking about the cards, in understanding the message contained in each one and thinking about how it applies to me. Sitting down and digesting a book in one go is only going to give me vague impressions, and details will inevitably be forgotten in the deluge of information. In starting this journey, I’ve found that the best way for me to learn more about tarot is the same way I learn about most things: to jump into the deep end and figure it out as I go, writing about it, and letting my mistakes and missteps be part of the public record and a learning experience.

For example, today, as a low-impact exercise, I pulled a single card from the deck—no ornate spread, no configuration, no complex interpretation of the meaning of multiple cards taken as a single reading. That degree of difficulty comes later for me. Just one card, from the Tarot Mucha deck by Lo Scaradeo because I adore Alphonse Mucha and art nouveau, so I relate to the deck. I got the Two of Discs (or pentacles—more on that later). The card in this particular deck depicts a woman standing on a sandy shore, balancing a pentacle in each hand, with two ships on a a tumultuous sea behind her. To interpret the card, I rely on a few different sources, recognizing that one may differ slightly from another.

The interpretation in the booklet that accompanies the deck trends a bit dark:

“This is a precarious time, and you are standing on shifting sands. Take care to keep your footing as you balance multiple tasks. Be sure you are giving adequate attention to everything that is your responsibility. There is a danger of something precarious being lost simply because you cannot be everywhere at once. No captain can pilot two ships at the same time. Be realistic and cautious. Key ideas: Life out of balance. The need to simplify or delegate. Juggling too many tasks.”

While the Tarot Mucha deck’s Two of Discs depicts a woman on a beach, less artistically specialized decks often use a young man, identified either as a dancer or a juggler, which perhaps communicates the point of the card a little more directly. And depending on who you read, some readings of the cards are a little sunnier, less “a real shit show is coming your way” and more, “you got this.” For me, the reality is between the two, or rather, heeding the warning of the darker interpretation leads to the results of the brighter one. It was an appropriate card for today. I happen to work in higher education, and this was the second day of the new academic year, and of welcoming students and faculty to a truly unique and, for many, stressful new semester. Although the university at which I work did, like many, go remote in March, that was sort of a dressed rehearsal for a more complex fall, as the university attempts to balance both in-person and remote learning with a student body now distributed across the globe and its many time zones.

Academia being what it is and always has been, discussion and “action committees” occupied the time between March and August, and then everything that needed to be done was crammed into the final two weeks before classes began, often with no official direction being given and no real decisions being made. The result is, to say the least, chaos. Chaos and actions that are often being taken with little or no thought behind their efficacy or impact. For me personally, this meant the vacation I’d meticulously planned to happen at a point after the effort of preparation should have been winding down and before some 85,000 students and employees returned (either in person or online) was cancelled, and the five or six things I normally juggle at the start of a new school year became a dozen things, each one claiming to be my top priority and each one of them in a shockingly sorry state.

So the Two of Discs is indeed an apt card for me to have pulled.

No need here to go into the details, but the card inspired me to take a moment to think about the chaos at work, not in a way that felt overwhelming, but in a way that helped me develop a way, both physically and mentally, to manage it. My background is in journalism, and one of the skills I learned in that trade is how to create order (or an article) out of chaos. It’s a mindset that translates to my daily life, as I constantly strive to take a jumbled collection of books, movies, and ephemera and bring some semblance of order to how it is stored and displayed in my apartment. And it helps me juggle the mania at work at what was threatening to be a unhealthily stressful time.

For me, the fact that the interpretation of the card is more of an ominous warning than a gentle reminder works well. I am motivated by high pressure situations, and I respond to constructive criticism better than I do to well-meaning but ultimately empty gentle encouragement. “Get yourself in order and figure it out before you sink” is, for me, a more potent motivator than, “Hey man, it’s all gonna be fine.” Not everyone thinks and works that way, but I do, so I appreciate the tone of the Tarot Mucha being something akin to a stern but competent editor.

Since this journey is about learning as I go, here’s what else I’ve learned from today’s card. A typical Tarot deck contains 78 cards split into two groups—Major Arcana and Minor Arcana. Then the Minor Arcana is split into four “suits,” the names of which vary from deck to deck, culture to culture, but the concepts of which remain the same: Wands, Pentacles, Cups and Swords. The Major Arcana—the King, the Fool, the Lovers, the Hermit, etc.—indicate a major event or change in a person’s life. Minor Arcana cards—which are numbered one (or the ace) to ten plus Knave, Knight, King, and Queen—deal with more detailed, nuanced events in daily life. Each suit of the Minor Arcana focuses on a particular concept. Pentacles, for example—which, in the Tarot Mucha deck are referred to as discs (and Wands are Staves)—represent the base element of earth and involve work, the body and senses, money, home and tangible things. Interpreting the card (or cards) can depend on how you are choosing it and, if you are picking multiple cards in a configuration, where it is in the configuration and which other cards accompany it. But, like I mentioned, at this stage, we’re taking the simplest approach for now and will build from there.

Could I have come upon this moment of reflection and clarity without a tarot deck, without the Two of Discs warning me that I need to find balance, structure my tasks, and if need be, seek assistance? Sure, probably. But I wasn’t going to get to that revelation on my own while the choppy ocean was battering me and I was just struggling to stay above water. But my serious woman on the beach, artfully balancing her pentacles in the middle of the storm, brought me to where I needed to be.