Column: Reading Together

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The night of my first ritual was also the first time I had my cards read.

I have written about that night before; most of my memories of that night are the field and the fire, the winding path to the gods. I do not remember where, in that pattern, this other scene fits. It sits alongside the first memory, like a loose piece of the same puzzle.

Sometime that night I was sitting at a kitchen table, in light I remember as orange-tinted and dim. The woman across from me was shuffling a deck too big for her hands.

I was a freshman in college and had what amounted to no money at all. She didn’t ask for any. We were awkward about it, both of us. My knowledge of tarot, at the time, was limited to the episode of Touched by an Angel where Satan takes the form of the strength card’s lion and attempts to eat a Pagan. That seemed like nonsense, but I had no idea what to expect. The reader was surrounded by her friends, in her own home, and more than hospitable, but I was a visitor, a stranger. We were both careful with our words.

The reading itself was nothing life changing. I remember that the hierophant jumped into her hands, followed by the two of wands, which she interpreted as “starting out a new journey in an old institution.” She mentioned there being a number of the major arcana at play, but I can’t remember what they were. At the time, I might have had the fool’s journey laid out in front of me in its entirety, with a brief pause for snacks at the ten of cups, and I would never have known the difference.

What I remember instead is the kitchen. This is where I first saw someone lay out a spread, explaining what it meant when a card danced out of her fingers, why she used this deck instead of another one. This is where I looked at a picture of my life, laid out by a stranger, and tried to decipher what it might mean.

More importantly, this is where I saw two women grip each other’s hands from across a table, mussing the cards beneath them. The details are hazy: a breakup, a divorce, a situation gone sour. The querent wanted to know if these things that had been so hard would get any better. The reader wanted to tell her yes.

Even to my outsider’s eyes it was a complicated situation. The cards said something, yes, I could take that on faith, but it seemed as though these friends were talking through the cards, as though the situation was old news and painful to both of them, as though this was the way they could speak about it directly without opening old wounds.

“This situation hurts,” the querent said. “How do I make it stop hurting?”

“Walk away from it,” said the reader, putting her finger down on a card. And then, no longer looking at the card, she said, “Please. Please just walk away. Why won’t you save yourself?”

I got my own deck some time later, a gift to my boyfriend that, with his disinterest, became mine. This is another strangely acute memory: opening the small yellow box, flipping through the deck, squinting at the tiny paper book for relevant meanings. The bright, cheaply printed colors clashed with our bedspread, and the images were opaque, words in a language I didn’t know. It looked like work, a lot of work, to decipher, so I put the deck away. I had no altar yet, no magical tools. They lived with my Magic: the Gathering deck and my dice, tucked beneath the television in their original box.

I don’t remember why I pulled them back out, or when. What I remember is that sometime after my boyfriend moved out, I gave someone a reading on my living room carpet. The whole procedure was a halting, stilted thing: I looked at the cards, then at the six words that the book associated with them, and stitched them together into a picture, one at a time. I hardly understood what I was saying. I certainly didn’t know what it had to do with my querent’s life.

She broke down into tears.

Years later, the cards spread out between us again, I looked up at her. “What were you crying about, that time? You never told me.”

She shook her head. “You told me to break up with my husband. Of course I cried.”

“I – what?”

Isabella Rotman, “Three of Swords” from the This Might Hurt Tarot [courtesy.]

I have been reading tarot cards for over a decade. This does not feel real to me. Every time I sit down, pulling cards from my bag, I feel like a novice. It feels like that first day, with the fumbling references to a book smaller than my palm. There are so many things I have not yet worked out – the difference of inflection between the eight of cups and the six of swords, the weight of justice and judgment when they sit next to each other. There is so much in the art to unpack, so many references in color and symbol to magic systems that I have yet to touch. I don’t know what I’m doing.

Two years ago, a friend mentioned to me that they would love to learn more about tarot. “But I’m deathly allergic to sage,” she said, shrugging. “If I go into a metaphysical shop I pretty much go into anaphylaxis. I can’t exactly browse.”

“Why don’t you just come over to my place?” I said. “I’ve got a couple of decks, and my friends have more. I’ll get a group together, you can look at all the cool art.”

Every month since, we have eaten hand pies from Chicago’s Middle East Bakery and pored over each others’ newest acquisitions, comparing decks and notes for a while before we exchange readings. I have watched people give first readings that cut down to the bone while drinking mead on the granite counter of a nearly-empty kitchen. I have watched strangers in Victorian dresses outline decades-old trauma in minute detail, curled up on rag rugs in sunny front rooms. I’ve watched readings fall flat, or spark frustration and arguments.

Isabella Rotman, “Three of Cups” from the This Might Hurt Tarot [courtesy.]

Mostly, I have been, as the kids say, “read to filth” by each and every one of my friends who attends. We have been doing this for a while now, and it is not uncommon for us to pore over a particularly difficult reading filled with reversals and odd placements only to swear and laugh, and look at the querent fondly. “It’s the same damn reading as last time. Do you want to hear it differently?”

This isn’t always the case. My understanding of tarot is that the cards reflect the situation currently at hand. Situations change: crises arise and pass on, people make decisions, finances stabilize and fall away. But behind those things we often find the same readings waiting, expectant, insistent in their need to be heard.

The one that comes for me is simple. “You have taken on too many projects,” it says. “Let yourself rest, before you are forced to rest. Put something down.” It comes in many forms: the ten of wands, yes, but also the eight of pentacles, Death, the nine of swords. When a deck is particularly sassy, it is the four of pentacles – the miser, holding onto objects that will not serve them.

The message never comes as a surprise. I know that I have filled my life to the point that nights at home are rare, and often full of work. I know the symptoms when I am reaching one of my periodic and regular points of no return: lethargy, a pervasive cough that will turn into a cold that will force me to lay down for a handful of days. I know that this is unsustainable, that I am long past my own resources and spinning progress out of borrowed time. I know I should find some way to stop. I don’t.

My therapist tells me that all of the bad patterns we have are there for a reason. Once, this was  a tool, something that helped us make sense of the world and survive a little longer in it. We learned how to use this tool, and we may not even realize that there are alternatives. I know I should stop taking on so much. I have no idea how to do it.

This is my own business, and my own problem to solve, private in a way that keeps anybody but my closest friends from commenting on it. But through the cards I have heard it from strangers, from people who have never touched a deck before, and repeatedly from my friends.

Isabella Rotman, “Three of Pentacles” from the This Might Hurt Tarot [courtesy.]

Once is an instance. Twice is a pattern. By the third time someone gives the same reading they know it’s a problem that the querent might be missing the tools to fix for themselves. In most situations, that is simply unfortunate. A tarot reader is performing the same kind of skilled labor as a masseuse, and they are paid specifically and only for a limited purpose. Life advice not only falls outside that area, it’s not useful – they’re simply not close enough to the querent for their opinion to hold weight outside of the reading.

In this group of my friends, I have found that the opposite is true. Things that cannot be spoken aloud – bad relationships, cycles of depression, broken coping mechanisms – become explicit. They fall off our tongues, half-remembered, and as the pattern emerges we reach toward each other, offering help.

The last time the four of coins turned up, my friend laughed, her hands slapping down onto the table in recognition, her face lighting up with the gleeful satisfaction that comes from seeing the right solution to a puzzle. “Hot damn, okay. Let’s do this. What are you working on right now? Let’s get rid of something.”

It took me all of the last two years, and most of the last ten, to stop thinking of tarot as a tool for self-reflection. Right then, somewhat abashedly writing out a list of projects, it became a tool for connection. Stranger to friend, friend to ally – the cards wove us closer together.

Isabella Rotman, “Three of Wands,” from the This Might Hurt Tarot [courtesy.]

There is more work than can be done in one list. Readings are just that: snapshots, illustrations of truths that we already know, figured in someone else’s mouth. It’s the work that comes after that trips me up, the long process of change, the slow dismantling of old structures to make room for the new.  I do not know how to make that work stick. I hardly have the words for why it is so difficult.

What I know is this: next month, we will spread out across my living room floor. Izzy’s new deck will be printed, and we’ll pour over the book we helped to write, and ask about her trip. There will be baklava, and someone will drip honey on the warm, brown rug. Then we’ll try the reading again.

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