Still Learning

…or “Tarot for birthdays!”

Katherine had been teaching herself how to read tarot, and she told my fortune, laying down card after card, telling me what each one was supposed to predict. They were all bad cards. A heart spiked with sword blades, a lightning-struck tower, a demon holding a man and a woman on the same chain, a hooded figure walking away from cups that lay empty on the ground. She was taken aback; she reshuffled the cards. “Let’s start again,” she said.

—From Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

Learning tarot can be an overwhelming process. Where to start? Should I read all the books, just some (and which ones?), or shun the books entirely until I’ve explored the cards myself? Do I really need to memorize 78 card meanings? Am I doing my readee a disservice by going majors-only? Am I doing my readee a disservice by reading/not reading reversals? The meaning I intuited from the card is drastically different from the one in the little white book (LWB), is that okay? Which meaning (out of the several in various books and my intuition) is right? Just what, exactly, is ethical tarot?And what’s up with the tarot court, anyway?

So many questions! The good (and bad) news is that there is no right answer to most tarot questions, except maybe the second-to-last one, there are some standards in terms of what ethical tarot is. Biddy Tarot has an excellent post on exactly that.

Hands down the best taroting advice I’ve received came not from the copious number of books on the topic that fill my Kindle, or even any of the lovely people on the #tarot tag on Tumblr, but from a dear friend of mine, via text, while I was on holiday in San Francisco. I’d walked into The Sword and Rose, an amazing, dimly lit, utterly cavernous esoteric shop on Carl Street, on my way to the legendary Castro district, while the proprietor was mid-reading. As I browsed I couldn’t help but marvel at his calm, smooth voice, and just how good he was at interpreting and talking about the cards. He didn’t stutter once. He didn’t freeze mid-sentence with a blank “what the hell is this?” look on his face. I confided to my friend via e-mail on returning to the hotel that I wished I were that good, and that I felt I did her a disservice by not being that good.

She wrote back:

You will get that good too. It just takes practice and letting go of fear (way easier said than done) because the talent is there. It will shine through.

I marvelled at how perfect her advice was, her confidence (despite previous experience with my tarot newbie-self) when I felt like I would never get it, and how, judging statistically from other advice she’s offered, she’s probably right.

My reading for her over the summer had not gone well. It was my first one, with oracle cards—Earth Magic by Stephen D. Farmer—I had dealt a 6-card Past/Present/Future spread with two cards for each position, and when I turned them over they all pointed to the exact same thing, and were not a Past/Present/Future spread at all but instead read for what we weren’t saying, something I only realized after she’d started for home, and I’d paced a well-worn groove down the hallway.

Maybe, after that, I was crazy for trying again, but my online reading for her the following month had gone better, I’d only been truly stumped on two cards, and even if I still couldn’t quite articulate the connection, I could see it. So, with her birthday days away and my idea to make one day every week for the month of January special in honour of this (which I can’t explain how excited I was for, or even properly articulate why), I invited her to spend a Saturday with me. In my head I loosely termed it “tarot and chat time”. And I was zen, all the way until about twenty minutes before she was due to arrive at the cafe we’d agreed on, the one with mammoth tables, a generally aloof clientele, and one known for people sitting for hours with laptops having ordered only one drink where I knew we would not be disturbed.

Doubts assailed me:

  • What if the cards held nothing but bad news?
  • What if I ceased to be impartial?
  • What if I forgot my resolve to be about empowerment over prediction? 
  • What if someone—in a departure from the generally aloof clientele—noticed I was doing tarot in the middle of the cafe and freaked out?

So many what ifs, with moments to go until her arrival at the coffee shop I was still weighing the pros and cons of making a run for it. I shuffled my Cat’s Eye tarot to calm my nerves. The card that jumped out and saved me from having to do a one card draw pointed to a need to be creative, I smiled wryly to myself and continued shuffling.

She walked through the door.

Hr eyes lit up at the sight of the tarot cards and the other assortment of decks littering the table. We talked.

Quite a ways into our conversation, having still not touched the cards—my mind was reconfiguring my ideas for the role of tarot in the day, most of what I had planned seemed oddly out of place at the table—I started babbling about my Book of Shadows, which yes, as a nod to Charmed, the TV show, I do call Book of Shadows despite only containing tarot-stuffsI pawed through it on the touch screen, showed her the table of contents, talked about using emotion to your advantage in magical works, about tarot conversations, praying in colour, spreads (which, as previously mentioned, I hadn’t had a lot of luck reading for her).

Then, I somewhat shyly, but with growing confidence, confided in her the meaning I’d just hit on for the one major arcana card that turned up in all my readings for her, including the one I do before I do any other reading for her, the Hug of Love spread I’d adopted into my own tarot practice from Aeclectic. We talked about it, I stuttered, she seemed receptive, which gave me that extra confidence boost I needed to finally use the cards.

I excitedly told her about the book I’d recently bought off of Abe Books, Tarot Games by Cait Johnson, and how it was written in this book that we needed more celebration and magic around our birthdays as we aged, not less. Those words perfectly encapsulated my feelings about her birthday. I asked her to shuffle the cards and lay out in a round, cake-shaped pile one card for every year of her life, and one to grow on. Then she made a wish.

“Pick a card,” I said.

We took turns interpreting the card she chose before I turned to the Gaian Tarot app by The Fool’s Dog to read Joanna Powell-Colbert’s prospective for the last word. Both of us could see the remnants of last year that were present in the card she’d chose, but despite the card’s reputation, I felt, and continue to feel, that in this context, the card was overwhelmingly positive.

Which brings me to my last point, for now, about learning tarot: there are no inherently bad cards, something Ms. Foxe, in Oyeyemi’s book is never given the opportunity to learn.

Later, while we were sitting across a table of Greek food, I thought back on our hours at the cafe and realized, I had talked about the cards. I hadn’t exactly been articulate, but I hadn’t exactly floundered, either. Maybe I was improving.

Do I know how to overcome my fear or anyone else’s? Not really. I just keep trying. One day the words will come out, the cards will behave, and and I will be the reader my friend knows I am capable of being. The one I am starting believe in, too.

For right now, I’m still learning and I’m okay with that.

Oh, and as a side note—I subscribe to Barbara Moore’s updates on Facebook, and it looks like her birthday is the same day as my dear friend’s… is that auspicious or what?

What is the best taroting advice you’ve received? Do you do anything for your birthday (or that of a friend) involving tarot? This is Jasmine of Hellbound Witch’s birthday gift to the tarot community on Tumblr, I’ve copied it down for next year!