Gathering In 2017

As we move into 2017, I think the most thoughtful and pithy thing I’ve read about it is this XKCD comic. I hope you had as good a 2016 as possible, and that 2017 brings everything you need and desire in spite of the confusion and challenges that the world is moving into politically and environmentally.

Last year, I got really, really in to this whole New Year thing. I worked through Susannah Conway’s Unravelling the Year Ahead workbook (which I am now doing again for the 3rd year in a row), did a giant 36-card year-ahead reading, and invented a New Year spread. My word for the year was UNKNOWN, and my overall year theme cards were the Emperor and Failure. Yup. All told, the giant year-ahead spread didn’t amount to much, so I skipped this this year. But I did choose a new word for the year, AWAKENING (or rather, the Slow Holler Tarot chose this word for me) and drew the Traveler of Stones (Knight of Pentacles) and Illuminate for my year themes. I want to talk a little bit about how this year theme thing has worked out so far, and then jump into this year’s Gathering In spread.

themes.jpgIn some ways, I’m glad that I had Failure on the table right from the very beginning, because that’s what this year felt like in a lot of ways. My failure to get a job in particular was something that I really wasn’t prepared for. I apparently wasn’t really prepared to search for a job, either, and I find myself at the end of this year reevaluating my strategies and priorities.

Looking back on my posts about themes for 2016, I’m struck about how I interpreted the Emperor, though. I located the Emperor outside of myself, seeing them as representing institutions and authority figures that I would be up against. Now that I look back on it, it was a strange way to approach the year, to assume that this year would be focused on petitioning large, authoritarian institutions. (Although the Emperor turned out to be a very fitting card for 2016 as an election year.) It wasn’t until a few days before Christmas that I remembered the Emperor card again and wondered–“What if I was supposed to be the Emperor?”

Given the theme of the Traveler of Stones and Illuminate for this year, it seems correct that I missed out on my chance to be the Emperor in 2016 and I’m now being sent back to the drawing board. I look at the equivalent of the Emperor in the Slow Holler Tarot–the Navigator–and wonder if I would have approached the year a bit differently if I had pulled that card instead. (Probably not–I think I needed the experience of this year to learn the lesson.) The Traveler of Stones tells me that I’m going to have to go back to basics, put my nose to the grindstone, and be prepared to sacrifice and let go of some things that I was clinging to in 2016. There are no guarantees of success, but Illuminate echoes the theme of awakening and suggests that this process will awaken me to new possibilities that I hadn’t considered before.

As for the Gathering In spread, last year’s was quite warm and fuzzy, but this year’s is more elusive and abrasive. And I think that’s a good thing.

gathering in 2017.jpg

1 Fire of this year: 2 of Knives. What is it that motivates me? What is it that I actually want to do with my life? The answer isn’t so clear. I want to work on tenderly exploring this impasse, rather than remaining defensive and stagnant. I have a lot of very specific ideas about what I want to do and the context in which I want to do it. I’ve got a long list of stuff that I don’t want to compromise, and I may just have to make some compromises.

2 Air of this year: Traveler of Vessels. Let’s let the intellect roam–a year of being a dilettante, not an expert. The question is: how do I bring this out as a strength? Because my lack of discipline means that I got almost nothing written in 2016, and therefore not even close to getting something published. I have so many ideas, but shoot them down before I get too far. The phrase in my head popped up this morning: “Write first, ask questions later.” Did I make that up?

3 Earth of this Year: Ace of Branches. HERE is my fire and inspiration! I may be more motivated this year by finances and the prospect of stability, rather than my ideals. This has been a source of tension for me lately–I could get a job doing something that I don’t want to do, but I’m having a hard time finding jobs for what I actually want to do. Do I change my ideals? Do I just take a “job job” and try to squeeze in other stuff around the edges?

4 Water of this Year: Four of Stones. Notice any tendencies to close off or isolate myself from others, or, conversely, to rely too much on others. How do I preserve emotional boundaries without making them into a prison?

5 Spirit of this Year: Six of Stones. Operating from a place of scarcity isn’t going to cut it. I really need to open my spiritual practice up. This year began to shift my understanding that my spiritual practice isn’t about me, but it’s about all beings, myself included. My head is beginning to make that shift, but my practice is not there yet. I need to come out of that defended, self-centered place and be more generous and giving (which translates to: practice more and take it more seriously.)

6 My Guiding Light: The Devil. Well, this is one to think about! It’s probably prodding me toward a more, well, devil-may-care attitude toward things, being less cautious and less picky. This Devil card is so abrasive and unsettling, but for that reason I kind of love it. (Also: body hair and uneven boobs: yes!)

7 My Personal Power: Student of Branches. Remembering that I’ve got a lot to learn and a lot to build. I’ve been getting a lot of the Student and Traveler cards lately, a reminder that I’m not in a place of mastery. I’m entering a new discipline via work and I am also entering a new world with a radically altered political landscape. Learning and hard work are the main modes that I need to move into. I’m not going to beat myself up about slacking this year, since I did just finish a DOCTORATE, you know. But time to get back to work.

8 How to respond to what I can’t control: Architect of Vessels. And yet the one thing that I can achieve a sort of mastery over is my relationship to my emotions and how I respond to other people. When shit happens, taking care of my emotions, watching my emotions, and watching how I relate to other people’s emotions, will be key.

9 How to take care of myself: 10 of Vessels. I got the 3 of Cups (Vessels) last year, so this is a progression in a theme. Do not isolate! Seek friends and lovers for comfort. Cultivate gratitude and awareness of others’ gifts.

10 What is AWAKENING? 5 of Knives. I really love this card–which is strange, since 5 of Swords isn’t a card that has ever really attracted me. When I saw 5 of Knives come up here, I went “ouch,” but in a good way. Awakening is about understanding hurt: the ways I hurt myself and others, and the ways that I am hurt by things outside my control. It’s time to take a good, long look at this stuff, whether it be understanding my privilege or exploring how I’m carrying old wounds into the present and doing little things that hurt others. I love this interpretation of the card because it’s about the skeletons in the closet–time to get them out, to take out those old knives and put them to work in the kitchen.

Rather than looking at this spread as being predictive, I’m looking at where I am now and what it illuminates as I move forward. This spread isn’t what the year will be, it’s what I need to do.

I hope you move into the New Year with grace and power. Please let me know if you use the Gathering In spread, if you’ve got a word for this year, or if the cards have given you some good insights about the year ahead!

The Difficult Conversations Spread

difficult conversationsDifficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, is a book I’d recommend to anyone. My copy has a thing on the front that says “New York Times Business Bestseller” and it’s categorized in “Psychology/Business” on the back, but I’m glad I didn’t let the association with business culture get in the way of reading this book, because it’s truly applicable from the most professional situation to the most personal one.

The authors’ argument is that difficult conversations–those that are difficult to broach or that trigger us emotionally–have three layers to them: the facts, the feelings, and the identity. If someone leaves a comment on my blog saying, “This post was poorly written,” three things are going on: the post itself (the fact), how I feel about being criticized (how I feel), and what part of my identity is being threatened by the criticism. If I am clinging to an identity of being a good writer or a smart person, I may feel defensive or angry–or I may do the opposite and give into despair: “I’m not a good writer after all.” I may respond by arguing about the facts–“This IS a good post, you just didn’t read it carefully!”–when what’s really important, and what are motivating 99% of my response to the comment, are my feelings and threatened sense of identity.

Now imagine a situation where it’s more complex: firing someone, breaking up with someone, telling a tenant that you’re selling the property and they’ll need to move, telling your parents you were sexually abused by a relative 20 years after it happened. Feelings and “identity-quakes” are going to be flying around and this book gives much great advice on handling them.

In preparing for a difficult conversation, tarot can help us, too, because it provides what we–who are so often identified with our identities and who act from our feelings–need: perspective. They get us out of the temporary feelings and thoughts of the moment and give us a space to see what we might be missing otherwise.

I mean, in approaching a difficult conversation you could just ask “what should I say?” and pull three cards, but working with an advanced model for how to think about this will make the tarot spread all the more effective.

The Spread

1. What happened: the facts of the situation. This is important because, as we all know but tend to forget when we’re reacting strongly to a situation, is that every story has at least two sides. Don’t assume that your story is the only story or that you know what the story even is. (An argument about, say, carpet vs. hardwood floors could really, in fact, be an argument in which one person is trying to get the other person to demonstrate commitment, while the other person has no clue about this and simply doesn’t have a preference for either carpet or hardwood floors!)

2. How do I feel about this situation? Seems like a stupid question to ask the tarot, but I find it to be one of the most illuminating. Sometimes the answer is not what you expect, but even when it is, it’s wonderful to see your feelings mirrored in the cards.

3. What identity or sense of self is being threatened, challenged, or changed by this situation? This is the big one. We carry around so many identities without even knowing it, and defend them not even knowing what we are doing. If someone says that I said something racist, I may argue with them about whether or not it’s a racist phrase or that it wasn’t racist because I didn’t intend to use it that way. I may go ballistic, research the history of the use of the phrase/word, or just shut that person out of my life. But what I didn’t know was that my entire response was motivated by feeling that my identity as a good person was threatened.

4. What is my goal in having this conversation? In Difficult Conversations, the authors ask you to think about this. What exactly is the goal? To tell the other person that they’re wrong or chew them out? To express your feelings? To come to an understanding? Before you even begin a conversation, it’s important to know what your motives are–because sometimes the conversation isn’t even worth having in the first place if all you want to do is chew someone out or complain to them about a situation that can’t be fixed.

5. What really needs to be said? Here we’re at the meat of it. What do you really need to say? What is your truth?

6. What is true but doesn’t need to be said? Telling a person that you want to break up with them because you don’t feel emotionally compatible is legit. Also telling them that you think their art is shitty is unnecessary. Sometimes things are true, but that doesn’t meant they need to be said.

7. What is the most important thing to keep in mind? I think of this as much of a how question as a what question. Think of this card as the lighthouse beacon for when the conversation begins to get off track. Sometimes this card will match up with #4–your goal. Sometimes it will be at odds with your goal, in which case you may need to reevaluate your purpose in having this conversation in the first place. You could even use this card as a talisman–bring it to the conversation or wear or carry something that reminds you of it.

dc spread edit.jpg

Here is a sample of this spread that I did recently. I got into an argument with a friend based on issues we’ve had before and now feel that I need to go back and talk about things. I won’t go into the details, but I’ll briefly run through each card.

  1. What happened? Mother of Swords, RX. I lost my temper, let my emotions get in the way of the facts. I was projecting my identity onto the situation.
  2. How do I feel? 10 of Wands, RX. Hell yes. Burnt out, exhausted, tired of having the same argument over and over.
  3. What part of my identity is being challenged? Mother of Cups. This one is funny because both the Mother of Cups and the Daughter of Cups are my significators. My sense of myself as a patient, compassionate person is being challenged.
  4. What is my goal in having this conversation? Five of Pentacles, RX. To undo pain and feelings of misunderstanding/isolation.
  5. What needs to be said? Four of Swords, RX. Some things that should have been said a long time ago, but weren’t. I need to stop covering things over and tell them my truth. These things need to be actionable.
  6. What is true that doesn’t need to be said? Daughter of Cups, RX. I don’t need to bring all my emotional immaturities upfront. I don’t need to go over in detail every time I was annoyed or upset. This is not about emotional venting.
  7. What is the most important thing to keep in mind? The Empress. That my goal is healing and I have it within me to do this.

Wow! I was very impressed with these when I turned them over. So much clarity here.

If you feel moved to use this spread, please comment and tell me how it went! And also consider picking up a copy of Difficult Conversations if you have some especially difficult conversations you need to have, or you have to have these kinds of conversations fairly often.*


* I bought this book with my own money and am recommending it based on my own experience.

The Mirror

mirror spreadI tend not to watch or read the news on a regular basis, preferring not to learn about the sufferings of the world through the heavy filters of  daily mainstream media. But I do think that it is important to know about suffering, even if everything in our own existence is comfortable for the moment.

Yesterday I found Sympathy at Slaughter, a Toronto-based project focused on bearing witness to the suffering of animals as they are about to be trucked into the slaughterhouse. I am vegan–but my cats are not. I also ate meat–and lots of it–for the first 20 years of my life. I am just as complicit in this suffering as anyone else; I am not trying to put myself on a pedestal or bathe in self-righteousness because the truth is that ALL food–even vegan food–involves suffering, violence, and exploitation. I have complex views about killing animals for food and am not a knee-jerk member of the Vegan Police or a supporter of PETA.  I realize that not everyone is in a position to go vegan–people live in food deserts, or they can only afford the cheapest of cheap food, like ramen, and yes, some people need meat in their diets in order to live.

That being said, I feel it’s important that those who buy meat from a grocery store or eat it in restaurants bear witness to the suffering that they are eating. Not only is factory farming one of the most environmentally destructive factors in the world right now, but the suffering of the highly intelligent animals featured in Sympathy at Slaughter is palpable: animals piled on top of one another, driven to the slaughterhouse in freezing temperatures or in temperatures so hot that they smother; animals standing in their own feces and that of others; animals covered in cuts and scratches; animals who, if they cannot get off of the truck quickly enough, are struck and poked with cattle prods over and over. This is the reality of the cheap meat that North Americans eat for two or three meals a day, every day of the week.

I then read the story of another kind of suffering: 6-year-old Strider Wolf, who at the age of 2 was beaten so severely by his mother’s boyfriend that a hole was punched in his stomach and his intestines were broken open. Strider and his younger brother now live (in poverty) with their grandparents, the only adults stable enough to take care of them. Living in rural Maine, they spent a spring and summer in an RV, moving from place to place after getting kicked out of their mobile home for failure to make rental payments on their lot. Strider’s grandparents’ health problems keep them from getting regular work and they struggle with not only financial stability, but creating an emotionally stable environment for the boys.

Bearing witness to suffering like this is difficult, but necessary. How could I begrudge some cheap meat to Strider and his brother? And yet, I know where it comes from. Reading these pieces, however, will lead to despair if it’s not done within the context of cultivating compassion and not followed up with self-care. Last night, feeling heavy with what I’d seen and read, I decided to turn to tarot, not to make the suffering go away, but to affirm what I was feeling.

When I am in pain, the most helpful thing to do with tarot cards is to not ask them a question. When we ask questions,  we want answers–we want certainty. But I didn’t need any answers, I just wanted confirmation of what I was feeling. So I pulled out my small Thoth deck and asked, “Can you please just mirror what I’m feeling back to me?” I then laid the cards out in a cross formation (I did a Celtic cross, but I have also done a full-on Latin cross for this exercise.)

mirror spread

This is what I got: the Empress, surrounded by Justice/Adjustment, The Knight of Cups, the 3 of Wands (“Virtue”) and the 5 of Disks (“Worry.”) I wrote in my journal:

Seeking justice,
supported by virtue,
worried, saddened,
a questing heart,
a grounded healer.

An earthy center surrounded by the four elements on all sides. The Empress is an expression of my desire to heal and my capacity to feel compassion. She looks forward to the Knight of Cups, whose heart seeks after ideals based in love. She is supported in all that she does by a strong sense of goodness and virtue–not ethical perfection, but the desire of trying to figure out what is right in every moment. Above her is the ideal she seeks for: justice, the righting of wrongs. Behind her, compelling her actions, are the worries and sorrows of the world.

I have not done this mirroring exercise many times, but when I do, it always turns out to be a potent method of self-love and self-care. It’s not that the cards are somehow sentient and tell me things about myself that I don’t know. Rather, the images and words on the cards give me a space to remind myself of my own good qualities, the validity of my struggles, and the fact that I feel pain when seeing the suffering of others is a positive quality. That being said, it seems like the art of the Thoth deck is most conducive of this result for me and I’ve never entrusted this exercise to any other deck.

Tarot always functions as a mirror, but I think sometimes we can see more clearly when we do not expect anything of the deck apart from simple recognition. No answers, no certainty, no advice; just confirmation and a sense that your feelings are valid. I’ve never seen this method written about anywhere else, but I doubt I’m alone in practicing it. Has anyone else tried?


The Wooden Tarot: Court of Bones

This is part of an ongoing series in which I write about my interpretations of the cards in A.L. Swartz’s Wooden Tarot. You can find the other posts here.

Bone Courts

Finally, we come to the court cards in the suit  of Bones. These cards feature some old themes that we’ve already seen in the numbered cards, as well as some new ones.

General Notes on the Wooden Tarot Courts

I have decided that for the court cards in this deck, I am going to refer to all of the figures on the cards with the gender-neutral pronoun “they.” Likewise, I will refer to the energy of the cards as active/receptive rather than masculine/feminine. To me, the Wooden Tarot seems like a deck in which gender doesn’t really matter that much, and as such I see it as a pretty agender deck–even more so than the Wild Unknown. I personally would have loved it if Swartz had renamed the courts Collective Tarot style, referring to each card as a stage of development, rather than the court position, but, hey, you can’t have everything.

I may do a separate post about all of the Pages, Knights, Queens, and Kings separately. For  now, it’s good to point out some patterns. The first pattern is in which direction the character on each card is facing. In the receptive suits of Blooms and Bones, Queens face right, while Kings face left. In the active suits of Stones and Plumes, this is reversed. The same pattern would hold true for Pages and Knights (receptive suits: Knights face left, Pages face right; reversed for active suits.) Here is a crappy picture so you can see what I’m talking about. But as you can see in the picture above, the Page and Knight of Bones break this model. They should be facing each other, just like the Queen and King do. I am wondering if this was deliberate on Swartz’s part, or if he painted the Page and Knight of Bones before planning the whole set of courts.

The second pattern is that of the sun and moon. The sun always rises behind the King, signifying the active/fire energy of the card, while the moon rises behind the queen, signifying the receptive/water energy.

And a note about how I read court cards in general: I read them metaphorically, rather than literally, meaning that I read them as parts of one’s personality instead of people in one’s life.

Page of Bones

The skull of a canid floats above a barren mountainous background, facing left. Moss covers the skull in places, and from it sprout fungi, a dandelion gone to seed, and a clover.

I spent way too long on Google image search trying to figure out if this was a coyote skull or a wolf skull. Despite many helpful resources out there, my search was inconclusive. I’m leaning toward coyote, though. Coyote’s reputation as a trickster is no doubt partly based on its skull, which looks like it’s laughing. Indeed, this card seems to have the most whimsical air of the suit, with the dandelion and clover (two favorites of children) sprouting from the skull.

The mountains in the background recall those on the shoulders of the God of Bones and are the more well-defined on this card than on the Knight of Bones. This reminds us that the Page of Bones is the earthiest card there is: Earth of Earth–earth as elemental dignity and affinity.

We might think of the social natures of wolves, coyotes, and dogs when looking at this card. These animals can be playful, but also fiercely hierarchical and territorial. The Page of Bones, then, combines both the playful elements of the coyote with the imperative to do things according to order and form.

Keys: trying your hand at a new skill; bringing a sense of playfulness to work; learning from and cooperating with others

Reversed: perfectionism–not wanting to try something unless you can be perfect at it right away; not allowing oneself to benefit from the help or wisdom of others;

Knight of Bones

The skull of a rhinoceros faces right. Moss, lichen, and small mushrooms grow on it while three oak leaves dangle. Above the skull there appears a faint mountainous background.

I had never seen a rhinoceros skull before looking at this card, and was rather startled by it. (This also led me to read a lot about the poaching of rhinos for medicinal trade and the things that people are doing to combat poaching, like sedating rhinos and removing their horns or even infusing the horn with a substance safe for rhinos but toxic to humans! But I digress…)

The rhinoceros is a huge, thick-skinned creature. But don’t think that this means they are sluggish–rhinos can be highly aggressive and can run faster than humans. The Knight of Bones is the Air of Earth (see the airy mountains floating above the skull), combining stability and practicality with intelligence and aggression. The oak leaves sprouting from their skull reinforces this as well: oaks are associated with strength and stability, but an oak leaf crown is a symbol of victory.

Keys: throwing your weight behind something; putting your nose to the grindstone; diligence; determined focus on accomplishing an objective; being methodical but efficient

Reversed: lack of focus, diligence, or energy; it might be time to take a break; a less logical, methodical approach may be called for

Queen of Bones

The skull of a Smilodon (aka Saber-Toothed Tiger) faces the right. One of the large teeth is broken off. Flowing ivy, moss, and two small mushrooms sprout from the skull; the moon rises behind it.

With the King and Queen of Bones, we make the transition to animals who are no longer with us, showing the maturity of these figures relative to the Page and Knight. (There were, of course, canids and rhinoceros living at the time of the Saber-Toothed Tiger and the Woolly Mammoth, but these two just scream, “We came from the Ice Age!!” Also, the Queen and King of Bones have more aged skulls than the Page and Knight.)

The ivy trailing from the skulls of the Queen and the King is significant. In addition to the mushrooms (which we talked about with the Three and Seven of Bones), which symbolize growth and fertility, ivy suggests strength and stability. Ivy finds stout things to wrap itself round, like buildings and large trees. The ivy in these cards suggests that it clings to something substantial. Ivy binds things together–the strong ties of family, as well as familial wealth and security.

I have no idea what we know about the social habits of Saber-Toothed Tigers, but let’s extrapolate from what we know about large felids generally. Female lions and tigers are providers–whether they live in prides or live on their own. They are territorial as well. Regardless of gender, then, the Queen of Bones signifies the person who puts food on the table and keeps the parameters of the living space intact. The Queen’s broken tooth shows that doing so can come at a price. The moon rises behind the Queen, showing their association with water and receptivity, but the fact that the Queen faces right–the active direction–also shows that in this receptive suit the Queen is in their element. This is further reinforced by the fact that the Woolly Mammoth/King of Bones is a possible prey animal for the Saber-Toothed Tiger/Queen of Bones. We’ll see the same kind of dynamic between the Queen and King in the receptive suit of Blooms.

Keys:  protection of family members and family property; responsibility–the buck stops here; creating bonds between people; careful stewardship of resources

Reversed: smothering or domineering; lack of self-care; valuing property more highly than people; obsession with social status rather than healthy family ties and spending;

King of Bones

The skull of a Woolly Mammoth faces slightly left. Moss and ivy hang from it and a small mushroom sprouts from the top. The sun rises behind it.

As I mentioned above, in the receptive suits of Bones and Blooms, it’s the Queens who are in their element and who dominate. The King of Bones, then, is not the breadwinner/predator, but is instead a woollier, more socially oriented figure. If the behavior of modern day elephants is anything to go by, the King of Bones has a penchant for family ties. Unlike the fiercer Queen, the King may be more of an avuncular figure: large, imposing and protective if need be, but ultimately gentle. The King’s strength  is in fostering cooperation and in being inclusive–never forgetting to leave anyone out. (Interestingly, it’s also worth noting that in modern elephants, the societies are actually matriarchal–again, why literal gender is not terribly relevant to this set of court cards.)

Keys: hearthfire; strong community and family bonds; happiness and harmony at home; generosity

Reversed: wealth at the cost of social isolation; lack of unconditional love or emotionally safe space; associating with irresponsible people, or with friends who are harmful to family or the larger community

The Wooden Tarot: Suit of Bones 6-10

This is part of an ongoing series in which I write about my interpretations of the cards in A.L. Swartz’s Wooden Tarot. You can find the other posts here.

Bones 6-10

Six of Bones

The bones of a hand with six fingers.

Again, since I don’t know that much about skeletal anatomy, I googled whether or not there are any mammals that have six fingers/toes. There are some that have an extra toe as part of their regular anatomy–pandas and elephants, which have an extra toe for supporting weight–but most six-toed creatures are polydactyls.

In this card, I see a clear nod to the Waite-Smith deck, which features a wealthy man distributing alms to beggars. The extra finger on the hand suggests abundance–having more than is necessary, and thus being able to give some away. Likewise, the image of a hand suggests both giving and receiving. What this card leaves out is the shadowy side of the Waite-Smith card–the potentially cavalier and judgmental attitude of the donor, who seems to be giving money to the better dressed beggar and not the raggedy one. This card could have that shadow element, but it would be dependent on the context and the other cards in the reading. I’ve also tossed in a couple of keywords based purely on the hand association of this card.

Keys: abundance; surplus; profit; charity; giving or helping with money or volunteer work; hand-made gifts

Reversed: financial insecurity; inability or unwillingness to help others in need; refusal to ask for or accept financial help; idle hands

Seven of Bones

Seven mushrooms grow out of a bone. Beside it is a small bone fragment. (Also see the Three of Bones.)

The Seven of Pentacles/Disks is where we see a pretty clear divergence between the Waite-Smith and the Thoth deck. The Thoth meaning is clear and unmistakable–“Failure.” The Waite-Smith image, on the other hand, is a little more ambiguous. A man leans on his hoe as he assesses the progress of his pentacle-harvest. Things look pretty successful at this point, but he doesn’t look so sure. We’re at a point of honest assessment–my keyword for the card–seeing how things are going and figuring out the next steps.

Compared to all of the cards so far, this one has the richest, most surreal imagery. I figured that mushrooms growing out of bones is just fantasy, but they can grow out of wood, soil, and poop, so why not see if they can grow from bones? I did some googling and all I came up with was a bunch of stuff about Minecraft, so my guess is that mushrooms growing from bones is not something that happens in the wild.

But let’s talk about mushrooms! They are the fruiting bodies of much larger networks of mycelium. Mushrooms are fruitful–they signal abundance and fertility since they are the reproductive parts of the whole organism. At the same time, mushrooms are the hallmark of decay. Their presence means that something is being broken down and transformed by the mycelium.

So what does that mean for this card? Unlike the teeny first fruits of labor that sprouted from the joint in the Three of Bones, we’re now seeing BIG fruits. These mushrooms are ready for harvest and eating (that is, if they’re not poisonous. Anyone who knows mushrooms well–please feel free to comment with suggestions on what they are.) At the same time, the seeds of decay are inherent in the fruits. The mycelium-filled bone will be broken down and turned into something else. Thus while this card is a sign of success, it’s also a nudge that we may need to turn our attention elsewhere. If we stay fixated on the bone, we may end up with nothing but bone-dust before long.

And what about that teeny fragment of bone at the bottom of the picture? It’s inscrutable to me, like the man’s expression in the Waite-Smith card. Is it a broken piece, signalling the breakdown of the bone, or is it something new–perhaps a new bone that could grow into something else? Not much is certain with this card, except one: this is not the time to rest on our laurels. Success may have arrived, but much more assessment and planning are required to keep things going.

Keys: fruits of labor; assessment; substantial but not long-lasting success; the transformation of a job or project–time to figure out the next steps; a nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right

Reversed: failure; clinging to a job or project after it’s time to have moved on; rashly moving forward with plans

Eight of Bones

Eight vertebrae are stacked to form a spinal column.

After the fruitful imagery of the Seven of Bones, we’re back to the “bare bones” imagery. In terms of a straightforward depiction of bones, this is matched only by the Four of Bones (hmmmm…think there’s a connection there?) In the four we had the stability and protection of a rib cage, but here we’ve got something even more vital–a spinal column.

The Eight of Pentacles/Disks is the card of hard work, and this is no different. In the Thoth deck, the keyword is “Prudence,” while the Waite-Smith deck features a worker diligently honing his craft in making pentacles. This card shows the accumulation of achievement, not through the spontaneous fruiting of mushrooms as in the Seven of Bones, but through the deliberate stacking of achievements one on top of the other.

The spine is what allows us as human beings to stand up straight, but we also shouldn’t forget that we share it with so many other creatures. The spine is a red thread that connects us with other forms of life and is an evolutionary achievement not only of upright humans but hunched armadillos and slithering snakes.

This card has the feeling of building something that is central to one’s existence–a core of stability around which other things in one’s life can happen. Like the Eight of Pentacles in the Wild Unknown, which also features a similar stacking mechanism, we have to read “hard work” into the card if we so want to because it’s not immediately apparent. I think of this card as the “storehouse” card, and from there we can think about what it actually takes to fill a storehouse.

Keys: stability; steadfastness; studiousness; saving up for a rainy day; creating a strong financial foundation; diligently working to save money; building a house or making your own possessions; short-term sacrifice for long-term gain

Reversed: spending when you should be saving; laziness; working hard at something that’s not worth it; short-term gain with long-term sacrifice

Nine of Bones

Mushrooms and grass grow out of the hollow in the middle of a pelvic bone.

So I did some more googling and found that this is almost certainly a dog’s pelvis. Don’t know if it’s really central to the meaning of the card, although it does give me the feeling that Swartz is someone who keeps around a huge collection of animal bones!

I would say that this is the most lavishly illustrated card in the suit, aside from the courts. No surprise there.

This pelvis forms its own little terrarium, with mushrooms and grass sprouting out of the earth. Given that the pelvic bone is close to the genitals, there is a suggestion of fertility here. Likewise, the situation of the growth between two tall bones suggests isolation. Both of these recall the Waite-Smith’s fine lady standing alone in her lush garden–there’s much growth, gain, and beauty here, but perhaps at the cost of being too isolated.

Keys: wealth; luxury; fertility; living in a walled/gated community–literally or metaphorically; feeling unable to relate to other people because of one’s wealth or status

Reversed: buying luxuries you can’t afford; a step down from a luxurious life style in one’s standard of living; giving money away–voluntarily or involuntarily; obsession with status symbols

Ten of Bones

The muzzle of an animal skull missing many teeth, but with 10 still intact.

I will flat-out admit it: this is my least favorite card in the suit of bones, and perhaps in the entire deck. But, hey, no big deal. Every deck has to have a least favorite card and this is the one. I am having a hard time understanding how this relates to the traditional meaning of the 10 of Pentacles/Disks–but let’s give it a try.

The animal that this skull belongs to is most likely a lion or mountain lion. Most of the teeth are missing, but nonetheless this is the card that suggests to us most completely a whole creature. We now return to the jaw theme, but unlike the disconnected jawbones of the Two of Bones, we have top and bottom–ready to chew.

My sense then is that consumption is the main angle of this card. We’ve reached a place where we no longer have to work and we can instead consume the fruits of our labor. Being the completion of this suit, it also suggests that while wealth is plentiful and we can rest on our laurels, it is also part of a larger cycle–like the retired person who can rest on her accumulated wealth but whose children will have to work for their own bread. As with many of the other cards in this suit, the Ten of Bones can be taken literally or metaphorically. Remember the ascetic God of Bones who asks us to question what true wealth is: having lots of money and things or having a sense of there being enough?

Keys: wealth; retirement; consumption; having an abundant mindset; no longer needing to work or worry about money

Reversed: conspicuous consumption; acquiring wealth for its own sake; always wanting more; having a scarcity mindset

The Wooden Tarot: Suit of Bones 2-5

This is part of an ongoing series in which I write about my interpretations of the cards in A.L. Swartz’s Wooden Tarot. You can find the other posts here.

I think this set of cards may be the most sparsely illustrated in the entire deck, which is both freeing and intimidating. The Wooden Tarot, while it may be based in the Waite-Smith tradition, also calls upon me to use my experience reading with other systems, particularly the Thoth tarot, and so I will be drawing a little bit upon both of them here.

Bones 2-5

Two of Bones

Two nearly identical jaw bones (the one on the left is missing its lower canine) with a lemniscate above them. (Well, that was the shortest card description in the history of tarot!)

It’s worth noting that all of the 2’s in this deck are similarly illustrated–two nearly identical suit symbols with a lemniscate above them. This makes reading the 2’s closer to Marseilles style of reading suit + number = meaning. While I know that the lemniscate is a symbol for infinity and that it appears on the 2 of Pentacles in the Waite-Smith deck, I wanted to know more specifically what it might mean. And so, I turned to Rachel Pollack’s Tarot Wisdom. The lemniscate

symbolizes the truth that life is eternal, without beginning or end, that nothing is destroyed but only changes form. –p. 36

This reminds me of the Thoth tarot 2 of Disks, which features an ouroboros twisted into the shape of a lemniscate. The keyword for that card is “Change.” Change, or impermanence, is one of the three marks of existence in Buddhist thought, and hence its connection to the eternal qualities mentioned by Pollack. As long as we exist–as long as anything exists–there will be change.

So how does all this apply to this image of two jawbones? Jaw bones are things that need to work together (you can’t chew) but are also constantly shifting their responsibilities. When we chew, we shift the food from one side of our mouths to the other. I think this very practical application says a lot about this card in the suit of Bones/Pentacles: physical things in our lives are not static; we do a dance with them as they change and wear out or as we change and wear out. Money flows in and out, clothes get worn out and need to be replaced, the seasons change–everything in our lives changes, all at different rates, all needing our attention in some way.

The missing tooth on the left jaw bone, then, is a signal that change is inevitable, that the tooth fell out and now we need to do something to compensate for the loss of the tooth. We shift from one foot to the other and back again, taking care of material needs as they arise. The missing tooth isn’t a sign of imperfection, it’s simply a sign of how things are.

Keys: making do; dealing with fluxes of money or material goods; keeping goods and finances in tune; adjusting to changes in living situation, whether those be human-made or caused by changes in the environment

Reversed: in denial about changes; feeling stuck or unable to cope with them; losing balance with financial responsibilities, material possessions, or work situation

Three of Bones

Three bones come together to form a joint, and out of the joint itself sprout two little mushrooms.

It’s images like these that make me wish I knew more about anatomy, either human or animal.I want to say that this image is of the tibia, tarsus, and metatarsus bones, perhaps in the hind leg of a dog or cat. At any rate, unlike the jaw bones of the 2, which are separate and we have to imagine working together, these three bones are already working together to form something really important: a joint. Each bone has its separate function in giving structure to the leg, but working together as a joint the bones are greater than the sum of their parts. We have three rigid things that come together to make flexibility.

As implied by the little mushrooms growing from the joint, it’s a fruitful thing. (“Fruiting body,” the term for mushrooms and other fungus that emerge from the mycelium to reproduce, is one of my favorite terms ever.) There are some implications for decay and change here as well, but I will talk about the whole mushrooms-sprouting-from-bones thing when we get to the 7 of Bones.

Keys: cooperation; something greater than the sum of its parts; the first fruits of collective labor

Reversed: insisting on working alone, for better or worse; losing time or money because of lack of cooperation; types of cooperative work (like needless meetings) that are unproductive

Four of Bones

The four bones of a rib cage. (I take that back, THIS is the shortest description of a tarot card ever.)

I will be honest and say that I’m not a huge fan of how the 4 of Pentacles is portrayed in the Waite-Smith deck. There are a few cards (the 9 of Cups also comes to mind) where the shadow of the meaning is illustrated more than the meaning on the face of it. The guy sitting there with his 4 big pentacles, clinging to all of them, is certainly one aspect of the card: miserliness and clinging to material things. But that’s not the only meaning.

The Thoth deck keyword for the 4 of Disks is “Power,” and indeed the illustration to the card is a bird’s-eye view of a moated fortress with four watch towers. So while the 4 of Pentacles/Disks can mean that you are hoarding stuff and being stingy, the other interpretation is simply that you are financially stable or, what I like to think, that you have arrived at a place where you feel like you have enough.

The rib cage on the 4 of Bones, then, could go either way. The four ribs provide structure, stability, and protection. At the same time, they are a cage, and may suggest protecting something that doesn’t need to be protected. I think this card is very context-dependent and I like that the open-endedness of the Wooden Tarot allows for multiple interpretations.

Keys: financial or material stability; the feeling of having enough; having a good home base or “nest” to return to at the end of the day

Reversed: miserliness; clinging to money or things; hoarding

Five of Bones

The bone pictured in this card is a scapula, or shoulder blade (although not a human one.) It has been severely damaged: cracked in five places with two large pieces broken off. It should be noted, then, that the “five” of this card refers to the fractures themselves, rather than the suit symbol.

While the Waite-Smith card shows two ill/disabled beggars in the snow, the Thoth deck names this card “Worry.” Again, I think Swartz’s card falls in between them.

Alright, so I’m learning a lot about skeletal anatomy today. It is interesting that of all the bones Swartz chose for this card, that he chose the shoulder blade. Although scapula fractures are apparently rare in humans, the significance of this bone is perfect for the meaning of the card. The scapula is necessary for moving the arms/front legs, and its place on the shoulders makes one think of “shouldering” burdens. With this card, we could be shouldering a significant amount of financial worries, or we could be like the beggars in the Waite-Smith card–encountering financial hardship because of illness, disability, a bad job market, or other life circumstances. Unlike the other bones featured so far, which seem pretty flimsy on their own, this strange fracturing of the scapula shows the brokenness of what was once strong and whole.

The one aspect of the Waite-Smith card that I really love is the church window above the beggars, which suggests that financial hardship may be an opportunity for spiritual and personal growth. In that light, the card could even mean deliberate austerity, such as a vow of poverty. But that’s just one of the quirks of Smith’s deck and it’s not shared by the Wooden Tarot.

Keys: debt; homelessness; job loss; illness (especially with large hospital bills); or a great amount of worry about these things

Reversed: mending financial situation; accepting help from others; adjustment to a lower standard of living

The Wooden Tarot: Introduction to the Suit of Bones

Recently, I broke down and bought The Wooden Tarot and the Earthbound Oracle by A. L. Swartz. The Wooden Tarot in particular has been on my list for a long time. In the spring, when I was deciding which new tarot deck to buy for myself, I had it narrowed down between the Wild Unknown and the Wooden Tarot. In retrospect, I still think that was the right decision. While I wouldn’t call the Wild Unknown an easy deck for beginners, I think it’s ultimately easier to read. That being said, the Wooden Tarot has been tempting me for a long time and now that it’s in my hands, I feel like it’s already a good friend.

Swartz says he based the imagery of this deck on the Waite-Smith deck, and therefore does not include a booklet of card meanings with the deck. Many readers have noted, though, that the deck has sparse imagery in places and can invoke a lot of puzzlement. Since getting it, I’ve had the strong urge to study it systematically. Marianne over at Two Sides Tarot has a wonderful series where she is working through the Wooden Tarot and there’s a Wooden Tarot study group on Facebook as well. (You have to request to be added, but I was added no problem.) Despite the helpfulness of these sources, I can’t resist the temptation to dive in myself.

I would like to get through the whole deck, like Carrie at Happy Fish Tarot has done with the Wild Unknown (she’s almost done!). I won’t make a post for every card, and will do them in small batches instead. Nevertheless, it will take at least 19 posts and probably more to get through the deck, so yeah, it’s gonna be a while.

I decided to begin with the suit of Bones, which corresponds to Pentacles/Disks. This is where I wanted to begin because to me the suit of Bones is the most difficult to interpret. Also, since I order my tarot decks so that Pentacles/Disks comes at the end, it would take me FOREVER to get to the suit of Bones if I just started at the beginning and worked through the deck. So let’s jump in, shall we?

The Suit of Bones

The most immediate question:



for pentacles/disks?

It seems as if stones, which other nature-centered tarot decks like the Wildwood Tarot use, would make more sense. The suit, after all, corresponds with the element of earth and stones come directly from the earth. But bones are made out of minerals, nonetheless, and they are certainly the most earth-like solid part of our bodies.

Bones are limited to vertebrates–fish, reptiles, birds, mammals; beings who are pretty far up the evolutionary scale. Bones are the structures that support our bodies, giving us shape and definition and allowing us to move. But unlike exoskeletons, they are invisible from the outside (except for teeth.)

Bones, then, give structure and solidity to our existence. Their support is visible but they themselves are not. Without bones, it would be impossible for creativity, emotion, and intellect–the domains of the other three suits–to function since their seat is in the skull-protected brain and they ultimately move throughout the rest of the body.

Since the suit of disks/pentacles corresponds to what is solid and tangible in our lives, it often gets interpreted as being mostly about money and possessions. Illustrations for cards in this suit are often lavish–I think of Pamela Colman Smith’s 9 of Pentacles, for instance–but the suit of Bones in the Wooden Tarot is by far the most spare in an already sparsely illustrated deck. The cards are literally what they sound like–paintings of bones in various configurations. While this deck sees the element of earth and hence bones as being vital supports to our existence, it also suggest that the “bare bones” of material wealth don’t amount to much, and that creativity, emotion, and intellect are needed to flesh things out. It’s interesting to me that the Empress in this deck has the alchemical symbol for water behind her instead of her usual association with earth. The lushness and fertility symbolized in the card, then, may have less to do with material wealth and more to do with emotional fulfillment.

You could think of this deck, then, as taking more of an ascetic’s or renunciate’s view of the suit of earth, relegating it to a supporting role. Because of this, I have a feeling that the Wooden Tarot would be a deck better left for emotional and spiritual inquiries, rather than inquiries about work, wealth, and property. And with all this in mind, we encounter the…

God of Bones

God of Bones

The God of Bones wears brown and drab green robes, mountains peek out from behind their shoulders as a solitary eye peers out from the alchemical symbol for earth–a downward pointing triangle with a line drawn across it. The robes, drawn diagonally across the chest and over the shoulder, are reminiscent of many styles of Buddhist monks’ robes. The God holds one hand palm pointing outward to the viewer and one is held downward, echoing the “dispelling fear” and “generosity” mudras. Between their hands floats a single bone. The God of Bones’s eye, like the eye of the God of Blooms, is angled slightly downward, signaling the receptive energy of the suit.

The monk-like God of Bones, with a single, bare bone in their hands and the bare mountains on their shoulders is the root of the powers of earth, the creator of the physical world. The God of Bones is the source of all that gives structure and stability to our lives; our bodies, possessions, and the physical world are all under their care. This God, however, is more like a renunciate than a god of plenty. They say: “I offer what is necessary for support and no more.” They are our entry into the suit of bones and ask us to question wealth, its purpose, and its necessity.*

Keys: new home, possessions or financial opportunity; a benefactor; an epiphany about money, security, or wealth; encounter with a new standard of living or day to day routine.

Reversed: stuck in habits of spending and consumption; wasted opportunities; misuse of resources; lack of insight into the role of wealth or possessions in one’s life

A God of Bones Reading

The Eye: What insight is waiting for me regarding the role of money and material things in my life?

The Bone: What gift do I need to receive from this area of my life?


*When discussing the Gods in the Wooden Tarot, I will be giving them the pronoun “they/their.” No need to assign a gender to a floating eyeball!

Tarot Cards for Dissertation Writing

I’ve been working on my dissertation since September of 2013, I believe, and I will turn it in to my committee on September 1st, 2015. Over the past nearly two years, my relationship with my dissertation has changed a lot, as have the daily habits that I’ve come to cultivate. I only started studying tarot recently, but lately I’ve noticed that many of the cards embody energies, ideas, and perspectives that I’ve discovered in the process of dissertation writing. Only some of the cards below concern the intellectual side of the endeavor. Others correct for grad students’ tendency to focus on the intellect at the expense of everything else. I have found out how to live while writing my dissertation, rather than being a slave to it, and these cards express some of the lessons I’ve learned.Continue reading “Tarot Cards for Dissertation Writing”

Dharma and the Dreaming Way

The Dreaming Way Tarot, written by Rome Choi and illustrated by Kwon Shina was published in 2012. I’d seen many photos and reviews of this deck online and was attracted to it, but had no plans on buying it any time soon. But a few weeks ago something happened that shook me up a little and the next day I had to be out and about for an appointment, so I decided to go down to my local woo-woo store and have a luxuriant browse through their extensive set of demo decks.

I was looking through the decks and thinking about buying the Mystical Cats Tarot (I know, I know. But I live with two cats every day and I’m pretty good at reading cat behavior, so why not read it on a card?) They had some ancient decks on demo that I’m sure were long out of stock, like the Tarot of a Moon Garden (this deck apparently sells in the 3 figures nowadays, so they had punched a hole in each card to deter theft.) My heart jumped a little, though, when I saw the Dreaming Way Tarot. So I plunked down my $20 and went home with this deck.

And to be honest, as I looked through the deck, I had a bit of buyer’s remorse–but not because of the deck itself. I don’t often indulge in “retail therapy” nowadays–it’s not particularly Buddhist, is it? I felt a little regretful about buying this deck on a whim, but as it usually turns out, most of the stuff I buy on a whim ends up being something that I use and enjoy a lot. I don’t need it and the money would have been better unspent, but it’s not exactly a bad purchase either. This deck was going to prove that to me from the very beginning. Once I had looked through all the cards in order, I did what I usually do: shuffled it hand over hand a few times, fanned the cards in my hand, and drew one at random. And what did I get? The Seven of Pentacles.Continue reading “Dharma and the Dreaming Way”