Lately, I have needed to put my feet in the water. Lately, my life has been feeling so stagnant and stifled and I need to experience the flow of the river. Still no job, but I haven’t been looking for one. I’ve felt like something needs to stay on hold. Yes, I’m doing volunteer work–building my portfolio, I tell people, to ward off suspicions (in others and myself) that I’m just not doing enough, or that I’m being perverse or irresponsible.
But I have never done anything irresponsible in my entire life. Not one single thing. I make good decisions, I have my shit together. How would I have gone from the 17 year old from a working-class background and a 2.8 high school GPA to a 30 year old with a Ph.D. if I didn’t seriously have my shit together? Well, I’ve had lots of luck and privilege too, don’t I know it.
So mostly, I stay in. I knit, I read. I’ve begun a journaling practice again after letting it go for at least a year. I’ve been doing asana yoga and thinking about shadow work and soul work.
The river near me goes through many widths and depths as it winds through the city, but my favorite place is where it’s wide, fast-flowing, and shallow. People regularly struggle to get kayaks and canoes through certain spots, often having to get out in mid-calf high water to carry them to deeper areas. This summer, I have realized that getting out into nature alone must be a priority for me, and right now the river is calling.
I’ve found so much life in the fast-rushing shallows–mussels, crayfish, minnows, dragonflies and damselflies, ducks, geese. I saw an osprey diving for fish, and a painted turtle digging her nest. I sit quietly and watch; or wade slowly and turn the river stones over with curiosity and trepidation. I take my cards, too.
In May, I spent 10 days in an intensive with Joanna Macy, which is an experience I will be grateful for for the rest of my life. I brought my Mary-el with me, and while I did almost no readings for myself, I got the chance to do several readings for other people, and news of my crazy-ass tarot deck spread like wildfire among the participants. People saw and recognized the depth of Mary-el immediately.
After returning, however, I didn’t touch my cards for a week or two. I don’t know why–it just didn’t feel right. When I began doing readings for myself again, they were mostly focused around the circle teachings of the four directions. I’m still not sure what I’m doing with that, but I may write about it in the future.
I’ve been feeling the closest to my nature-centered decks: the Wildwood Tarot, the Wild Unknown Tarot, the Druid Animal Oracle, the Earthbound Oracle. I feel like my practice is shifting and deepening somehow. I’m trying to take a more intuitive turn, but it’s also been hit or miss. I think my problem is that I want to do bigger spreads (especially spreads I’m just making up on the fly) and it’s not really clicking with me. I’m sort of groping my way to a more body-centered, nature-centered way of card reading.
Looking at my site traffic (which was bizarrely high in May and nearly as high in June, despite the fact that I published almost nothing), I see that a lot of people are landing here looking for info about the Wooden Tarot. I finished the minors months ago, but looking at the majors will take more time. I haven’t even begun with them yet, to be completely honest. I tried to start soon after I finished the minors, but something just wasn’t clicking. I didn’t feel like I could find a way into them. That may begin to loosen up and change a little bit, but I imagine it will be a while before posts start going up.
Today I made up a small daily spread that may be useful to some. Right now, all of my questions are about finding my place in the world–that is, my true place. It’s a much bigger question than getting a job; it has to do with what I was born to do, and I don’t know. Remember how my word for 2016 was UNKNOWN? Well, I’m finally making it into the unknown. It may be irresponsible, perhaps, but I don’t to get a new job–a new set of responsibilities and identities, a new social scene–until I dwell in this place of unknowing a little longer. Anyway, this spread is a version of the questions that I’m asking myself all the time nowadays, so here goes.
Today’s theme, or most important feature
What do I need?
What needs me?
I hope you find it useful; if you do, let me know.
I just felt the impulse to apologize for all this navel-gazing, but you know, I’m not going to apologize. It’s part of what I need, and it’s part of what the world needs from me.
One of my favorite people in the tarot community is Kelly-Ann Maddox, whose wisdom enriches any conversation about tarot or spirituality. I first came across Maddox on Instagram, but the real gem of her online presence is her YouTube channel, where she has posted hundreds of videos of a wide variety of topics relating to spirituality, tarot, ethics, and more. Although much of her channel is about witchcraft, which I don’t practice, I still get so much from watching her videos because of her genuine understanding of the processes of emotional healing, self-understanding, and personal empowerment. And she is really, really no-bullshit.
Recently, I saw that back in December she had posted a couple of videos about what she calls “Witchy Consumerism,” which includes the urge to buy tarot decks, but also expands to crystals, ritual objects, altar setups, etc. I wish I had seen them before writing my #decklust post, because there’s so much overlap and I could have gotten further by using her videos as a jumping-off point. I hope to talk more about #decklust/consumerism in the future, but in the meantime, do take a look at these videos if this topic at all interests you. She has great theories about why consumerism leaks into our spiritual practices and practical ways for beginning to examine and undo those habits.
A little over two years ago, I took a career seminar in which I found out that my Meyers-Briggs personality type is INFJ. This explained so much about my life to me, I can’t even tell you. Some time later, after I got into tarot, I also learned that my birth card is the High Priestess. Getting this card as my birth card may have been ordained by the universe or it may have been a great coincidence, but in either case it has helped me think about patterns in my personality and how they have shaped my life.
INFJs are altruistic and caring people; they are sensitive and idealistic, but have a strong discipline/pragmatic streak and do well at following through on concrete tasks. This combination of idealism and pragmatism makes them the rarest personality type. (Being idealistic enough to go to grad school for English literature and being pragmatic enough to actually finish the program strikes me as a classic INFJ thing.) The High Priestess, too, has a combination of taking the world (and being taken) very seriously while sitting at the border between worlds in secrecy and detachment.
Perhaps the greatest thing that the High Priestess and INFJs have in common is secrecy. And I’ve got that in spades. Being secretive is not the same as being deceptive, mind you. I don’t lie to people. It’s just that I don’t bother to tell people what’s going on in my inner life until way down the line. For instance, at the age of 24 I left the area my family lives in to go to grad school. When I talked to my family, I mostly told them about my classes or teaching or social life. But then basically, one day, they wake up and find out that their daughter is a Buddhist! Like, she goes to a temple and has taken vows and has a Buddhist name now and everything! They did not know that I had been interested in Buddhism since about the age of 21, or that I began practicing seriously at the age of 26. All they know is that, at the age of 27, I’m now a card-carrying Buddhist.
This analysis from 16 Personalities about the weaknesses of the INFJ personality is a great description of my kind of secrecy:
INFJs tend to present themselves as the culmination of an idea. This is partly because they believe in this idea, but also because INFJs are extremely private when it comes to their personal lives, using this image to keep themselves from having to truly open up, even to close friends.
So yeah, big inner questions and issues are things that I work through on my own and nobody else really finds out about them until I’ve completely processed or figured them out. As another example, I decided over the course of a couple of years that I did not want to go into academia. So one day after I had firmly made this decision and even informed my dissertation committee, I called my best friend and told her that I was not going to pursue an academic career. She was devastated because her whole fantasy is that we’d get jobs in the same department and be academic best buds forever. But that’s not the reason why I didn’t tell her beforehand. It just did not occur to me to tell her my doubts about academia while I was in the process of making the decision.
Over the past couple of years, I have gone from complete obliviousness about this secrecy of mine to being quite self-aware about it. But even that self-awareness hasn’t changed much. My secrecy has been brought to the forefront of my mind recently because of murder of the beautiful men and women at Pulse in Orlando. I am queer, but I’m basically in the closet. (I pass as straight for a number of reasons, so oftentimes my sexuality is erased, even if I am trying to be open about it.) This is not because my friends or (immediate) family would react negatively any way (my mom would probably run out and join PFLAG or something), but I just always felt that my sexuality is a personal part of me, so why bother telling people? Also, I’m married to a man, so it seems like moot point. But it’s not. After the shooting, I realized how I needed to grieve it as a queer person in queer community, which actually means being part of queer community, which means coming out.
So now, at 31, I’m thinking–how am I going to tell my family, but also: why did I keep this a secret for so long?
Well, tarot to the rescue. I realized that I needed to spend a little time with the High Priestess as well as ask some questions.
I could have chosen more decks, but I decided to take the High Priestess (or its equivalent) out of six of my decks: Thoth, Waite-Smith, Mary-el, Japaridze, Wild Unknown, and Wildwood. I didn’t do readings with these images; I just wanted to study them and have them as a focus. Then I took out my Earthbound Oracle and asked five questions:
What is the quality of things that I hide? Healing
What is the quality of things that I make known? Death
Why do I hide things? Transformation
What needs to stay hidden? Vision
What needs to be revealed? Voice
I have found the Earthbound Oracle to be the most powerful part of my readings lately, and this is no exception.
I hide things, not surprisingly, that are tender and vulnerable in me; things that I’m still working on, trying to figure out. Like it would be painful and perhaps counterproductive to take a bandage off of a wound to show someone else, I don’t want to show my developing thoughts and feelings to others until I feel that they’ve healed enough.
When things are no longer moving in me, when they’ve healed and become stable, that’s when I show them to others. There are already new questions and processes going on inside me, but the ones that I show to others are dead, not in the sense that they are gone, but that they’ve gone from being living questions to solid properties of my life. They’re dead in the way that death often signifies in tarot, something that has gone through transition.
So why do I hide things then? I hide the process of transformation. I hide things that are wounded and vulnerable in me, that haven’t had the stitches all put in place, are still undergoing metamorphosis. I hide those things like a caterpillar hides itself in a cocoon as it undergoes a transformation that nobody else can see. Transformation through healing is a fragile time for me. Perhaps I fear that I’d let other people talk me out of my process, perhaps I don’t know how to reveal to others what isn’t clear to me yet.
But it’s also clear that I don’t need to reveal everything to everyone. Some things need to stay hidden–the inner vision that drives my life questions is mine and mine alone. I just finished Bill Plotkin’s Soulcraft this morning, which is about the practice of actually being initiated into adulthood and finding your true purpose in life (soul) beyond what society or your social self thinks. These encounters with soul, which often come in the form of visions, generally happen when we go through experiences–willingly or not–that shake us out of our everyday social selves. Plotkin makes the point that telling other people about these visions
might even be a bad idea. You’re likely to be misunderstood and very few people –maybe no one–will be able to grasp the luminous vitality that the vision holds for you. (p. 325)
The owl on the vision card is blindfolded, meaning its vision is turned inward, but at the same time it holds onto a jewel. The vision and the jewel, my purpose in life and my guiding light, are mine and mine alone. The vision drives the questions and the transformations in me, and while I might reveal them to others, revealing the vision itself makes less sense.
All that being said, my voice still needs to be heard. I think part of my problem is not that I keep silent about things that I’m experiencing while I’m experiencing them, but I sit on them for a really long time, even after they’ve become a part of my psyche and everyday life. I need to give voice to these things while they’re still vital because otherwise I’m just sitting on a bunch of secrets that are actually powerful qualities about myself, and I’m sharing them with no one.
Since we’re so close to the summer solstice, this strikes me as a good time to reflect on secrecy. What am I keeping in the dark from others that needs to be brought to light? I’m pretty good at uncovering shadowy places in myself, but once I’ve discovered them, how do I make them into a light for other people? I don’t know if this series of questions would be helpful to others, but if you find yourself in a similar place and want to give them a spin, I’d love to hear about it.
Tomorrow I’m heading out for a 10-day activist training intensive, so I will not be posting here for at least a couple of weeks. The past few weeks have been filled with preparations for my family to come watch me graduate, and then preparations for this trip so my tarot practice has fallen off a little bit. We’ll be digging deep at this activist intensive, however, so I think it’s a good idea for me to bring a tarot deck to process things as they’re happening.
This morning, I decided to pack my Mary-el deck, even though I am far from having it mastered. I will not be bringing the book, which will force me to work with it intuitively. I haven’t used this deck that much, but I already trust it enough to handle more intense inner work.
When I get back, I’m looking forward to blogging more and sharing my experiences with my new decks.
For those in the tarot community on Instagram, sharing pictures of newly purchased decks is a favorite pastime. Every day in my feed, I see pictures of packages containing decks, or new decks still in shrink wrap, usually with a caption that goes something like, “Just got home to find this in the mail! I’m so excited!” But a couple of months ago, I saw a post (I can’t remember whose, unfortunately) that featured a picture of two new shrink-wrapped decks and the caption:
When I own every tarot deck, will I finally be happy?
The tiny Buddha inside my head went, “Nooooooooooo! You won’t because that’s not how desire works!” But this was a person I’d never really engaged with, so I didn’t feel like jumping in and giving her a lecture. I also didn’t because, you know, it’s not like I have this shit figured out either.
For those who talk about tarot on blogs or social media, the temptation to share new decks with followers is irresistible. I do it, too. While we might not associate buying a $20 tarot deck with conspicuous consumption–a term we usually reserve for McMansions, BMW SUVs, and Prada handbags–that’s literally what we’re doing: making our consumption conspicuous to others. I don’t think there’s any harm in a person showing off a new tarot deck to their friends and followers, but strange things begin to happen when you share with dozens or hundreds of tarot folks on social media.
I follow about 220 people on Instagram, and while each of those people might buy a deck every once in a while, I see posts about new decks every day–often multiple times a day–which makes it seem like people are consuming more than they really are and that it’s normal to be buying decks all the time. Rather than conspicuous consumption, which focuses on one person’s wealth, I call it the spectacle of consumption–the illusion, though watching mass consumer habits, that each person is consuming more than they really are, and that it’s normal to consume at such a rate. (Not surprisingly, I’m not the first person to make this term up–if you google it, you can find it in critiques of Late/Post-Capitalism. But anyway.) And from what I can tell, this spectacle of consumption causes people to consume more–or at least desire to consume more.
Since seeing that Instagram post, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about the tarot community and what we call #decklust. On Instagram, and probably other platforms where tarot people hang out, the hashtag #decklust sums things up pretty well. As soon as a beautiful new deck comes out, everyone has to have it. And if you can’t afford it, at least you can publicly opine about how you want it. People use #decklust jokingly, of course, but there’s a kind of self-consciousness about it as well. On Instagram and in other places, I’ve seen people talk about how they spend so much money on decks that it’s actually harming their personal finances. Or about how they see tarot as a big part of their spiritual path and feel conflicted about how commercialized it has become. I myself have thought about all these things and have also undertaken measures to work with my own #decklust.
I recently ended a 6-month hiatus of buying anything having to do with tarot. From last April to October, I managed to blow almost $500 on tarot decks, books, and apps. So I decided that from November to May, I wouldn’t buy anything having to do with tarot. I did swap a couple of decks, and received a couple others as gifts. I also made the exception of backing the Next World Tarot on Kickstarter since it was a time-sensitive thing, but aside from that I held to my promise pretty well. During this whole time, however, I was building up my wishlist–putting things on, taking things off. In the end, I had up with a wish list three decks long: the Mary-el Tarot, the Japaridze Tarot, and the Tarot del Fuego.
As I saw these decks on Instagram, especially the Mary-el, I became really fixated on them. But this time I was smart enough and really began to watch the whole #decklust process. I watched the feelings of hope and excitement I got from the idea of buying and owning the Mary-el. I watched the feelings of resistance that came up when I thought: What if I don’t buy it? I watched my state of mind as I purchased it, opened it, and began to use it. The result? I realized very quickly after opening it that, although the Mary-el is a great deck and I will enjoy using it for years, I am not a whit happier for buying it. Furthermore, the amount energy I spent researching it and lusting after it was far greater than the enjoyment I get from actually owning and using it.
My conclusion is that #decklust is a time-waster and an energy vampire. And, most importantly, it’s endless unless you work with it. I still have #decklust, of course, but watching how it works gives me some perspective. Watching other people’s #__lust is helpful, too. For instance, I’m fairly rare in the tarot community in that I have no interest whatsoever in buying crystals. And yet I see people going through the same process with crystals and think, Why is this even an issue? But, of course, most people in the world would look at me and go, Why would someone spend so much money on a pack of cards?
A great way to get some perspective is to poke around in other communities on social media that are centered on collections and hobbies different from your own. One night on Instagram, I stumbled across an entire community of people who collect little pins that you buy at Disney World. I was amazed that anyone would spend their money on this–and then thought about my own spending habits and how stupid they would look to an outsider. My point is that our desires, no matter how well-founded they seem to us, are completely arbitrary.*
But more importantly, just as you can be in love with love, you can desire desire. The desire of desire, masked as the desire for things, is basically what US culture is founded upon. The reason why a new tarot deck will never make me permanently happy and fulfilled–no matter how much I enjoy working with it, and no matter how much happiness it brings in the short term–is that the process of desire is always focused on continuing to desire. It’s a system that is set up to continue desire indefinitely, not bring contentment. Even if I buy a copy of every tarot deck in existence, I will always be waiting for the next one, or turn my sights on something else.
Over the past six months, I have also become more alive to the ethical implications of buying tarot decks whenever I want to–even if I have the means. Why am I buying decks for myself when I could give that money to refugees or famine victims? And what about the reality that decks come from living forests which are chopped down, shipped to China, processed and made into cards using exploited labor and heinous chemicals, shipped back to the US (using tons of fossil fuels in the process), and into Amazon warehouses where they are packaged and shipped by exploited workers. I’m not trying to give anyone a guilt trip, because guilt is not an emotion conducive to positive action, but these are real ethical questions we all have to ask ourselves about anything we buy. Is another tarot deck worth the well-being of workers, the lives of trees, and more carbon released into the atmosphere?
I’ve adopted two strategies for dealing, at least partly, with these questions. The first is to buy used decks whenever possible. It’s not a perfect system, of course, since somebody has to buy new ones in the first place, but I think buying used is a great strategy for many things. The second is to make sure that I donate a dollar to charity for each dollar I spend on tarot. Not only does this curb my tarot spending, but it keeps me from focusing on myself and my own pleasures all the time. I have no illusions that either of these solutions is perfect, but they do make a difference in how I see decks. I’m forced to consider the social impact of spending money on myself, and the environmental/social impact of buying new.
The point I’m trying to make here is not that we should squash and eradicate our #decklust. Rather, I think we should bring curiosity to it. Does wanting new decks make me happy? What does it feel like in my body? Do the decks themselves make me happy permanently? How does it happen that I buy decks even when I don’t mean to? How do I feel about the social/environmental consequences of buying decks I don’t need? Answering these questions may or may not change our habits of consumption. But these are questions that every person needs to answer for themselves, and when approached with curiosity, #decklust is a gift, an opportunity for self-exploration.
*I want to point out that I’m talking about consumerist desires–hobbies, collections, fashion, gadgets, and the like. Basic desires for shelter, food, financial stability, human companionship, etc. are a different matter entirely.
Things have been quieter than usual around here because I’ve been really busy with job applications.
Near the end of February, I found out about a fellowship for humanities PhDs who want to work in nonprofits. The organization and job looked great, and the money was excellent–far more than I could expect to command on the regular job market–and it would put me much closer to my family. But it would mean having to move to a commuter/bedsit stripmall McMansion hell suburb of a large city for two years. Oh, and I would have to move there on two months’ notice. (This is a place I have actually been, so I’ve seen it first hand and know I would hate living there.) I worked my butt off on the application and asked people for letters of recommendation, but the entire time I got this feeling like I was writing my own death sentence. But I submitted it anyway, because–career and money and all that.
Two days later, I got an email from a woman at a local land trust. I’d done an informational interview with her back in January, and she wanted to let me know that a full-time communications position was opening up there. I was overjoyed at this news–not only at the prospect of doing a cool job with a cool organization, but especially at not having to move. I got my materials together, easily wrote a great cover letter, since I’d just had practice writing one for the fellowship, polished my resume, and submitted the application ASAP.
In about a week and a half, I got an email saying they wanted to interview me for the fellowship. And then I got an email saying they wanted to interview me for the local job. The process for the fellowship was moving more slowly, but I told both parties I was interested, all the while hoping that I would get the local job and could just tell the fellowship people that I had to withdraw my application after receiving another offer.
In the midst of all this, I was reading Benebell Wen’s Holistic Tarot from cover to cover for the second time, and as I went along, I tried, or re-tried, many of the spreads featured there. One of them was Eden Gray’s “Yes/No” spread using aces. This spread is interesting in that you don’t actually spread anything out, but just count cards. Shuffle the cards and draw them off the top, putting them into a pile until you get to an ace or draw 13 cards. In either case, you move on to a second pile, again stopping when you get an ace or get to 13, and then do the same thing with a third pile. Upright aces mean yes, a mix of upright and reversed aces means yes, but with delays or complications, and all reversed aces means no.
Now–I don’t do yes/no questions generally for a couple of reasons. (A) Unless the question is, “Do you want basil on your pasta?,” yes/no questions are really not that well suited to answering life’s quandaries, from the small to the big. In my academic training, I also learned to avoid yes/no questions in my research and my teaching because nothing kills actual inquiry and learning faster than a yes/no question. (B) Yes/no questions in tarot tend to have a more fortune-telling focus by their very nature, and since I don’t have much interest in fortune telling, I don’t ask them.
But the spread looked interesting, and so out of idle curiosity, I decided to do it and ask straight up, “Will I get either of these jobs?” So I counted out cards in a pile until I got to 13, with no aces. Then I put down the first card of the second pile–BOOM, Ace of Cups reversed. Then I put down the first card of the third pile. BOOM, Ace of Wands, reversed. Two reversed aces, right in a row. By all appearances, the answer was no for the fellowship and the local job. The Ace of Cups suggested that one of the jobs would be unfulfilling emotionally or regarding relationships. The Ace of Wands suggested that one of the jobs is in line with my desired career path, but I may not have the skills or experience to get it.
Well, that was incredibly to the point. I looked at those two aces and wasn’t sure what to think, since it seemed like I had pretty good chance at both.
In fact, I was afterwards informed that I was a finalist for the fellowship and I made it to the second (final) round of interviews for the local job. When interviewing for the local job, I loved the people I was interviewing with and the organization and really did my absolute best. But I knew all the while that the major factor out of my control was who else had applied. And, indeed, I got a call yesterday morning saying that they were impressed with my work and thought I would be a good fit, but they decided to offer the job to someone with more experience. The Ace of Wands reversed. At the beginning of the week, I had also done a week-ahead spread, and the Ace of Wands reversed showed up in the “what will I be challenged by?” position. (So, just for future reference, Ace of Wands reversed = you’re not going to get the job.)
Within 30 minutes, I was also notified by email that the people with the fellowship position wanted to schedule interviews with me. And there was the rub.
Although I genuinely wanted the local job, I was also hoping it would be an excuse to bail out on the fellowship without having to feel bad for wasting people’s time or seeming contrarian. Having been handed the Ace of Wands reversed, I knew that it was time to deal with the Ace of Cups reversed. But you know, why not do a tarot spread about it first? I don’t have a photo of either the ace spread or its follow-up (wasn’t feeling particularly documentary in either of those moments), but the highlights included the 8 of Swords, the 7 of Swords, the 3 of Swords, and the 4 of Cups. Like, really, tarot, can you tell how much I do not want this job? I asked what the next steps were and got the 7 of Pentacles and the Empress–“reassess what is actually best for you.”
So this morning I sent off an email to the fellowship, as graciously as I could, thanking them for their time, explaining that I couldn’t move right now and needed to withdraw my application, apologizing for doing this so late in the process, and offering to do any remote volunteer/consulting work they might need in the future. Who knows if I would have gotten the fellowship had I gone forward with the interviews? But that’s not important–only I knew that my gut was screaming NO! and I didn’t want to waste more of anyone’s time.
So I went from having two irons in the fire to having none. And that’s OK. The interviews I did for the local job were my first ever (aside from food service and retail interviews I did as a teenager.) In the back of my mind, I knew that it wouldn’t be quite right if I got the first job I’d ever interviewed for–not out of principle, but just because I’ve got some more lessons I need to learn. And one of those lessons was in saying no. In learning to honor my gut feelings over what seem like good intellectual reasons to do something.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve actually worked with tarot very little. I usually end up doing several readings a week, but while working on this job stuff I pared it down to one or two. I honestly felt that I didn’t need tarot to guide me thought this process, and that I just needed to do as much work as I could on my own to make things happen.
And I still think that’s true. I’m glad that I didn’t act on the yes/no spread by simply giving up or assuming that I would not get either job. I do think it’s interesting, though, that it correctly “predicted” what would happen, even if in the case of the local job, I had no control over the outcome of the situation, and in the case of the fellowship, I ended up taking things into my own hands. It’s cool, I suppose, that I was able to accurately predict the future using some cards, but I doubt I was any better off because of it.
Tarot has been incredibly useful, though, in helping me check in with my feelings and intuition, which ultimately led me to make the right decision. So while I may have the power to predict the future–I guess???–I found out first hand that it wasn’t actually as helpful using the tarot to understand what’s already going on inside me. I’ll stick to tarot for mirroring and guidance, not yes/no answers.
The bright side is that I feel a lot more focused now, ready to resume informational interviews and start putting in local job applications with some interview experience under my belt.
And, well, even though I didn’t get either job, I can truthfully say that I ACED it!
The Wooden Tarot is a 79-card self-published tarot deck by Atlanta-based artist A. L. Swartz in 2014(?). The deck was conceived in the Rider-Waite-Smith tradition, but Swartz’s unique style and artistic preoccupations make this deck a big departure from mainstream visual tarot traditions. The Wooden Tarot features no human beings, with the exception of a human skull on the Devil card and the four Gods, or aces, with human-bodies but floating eyeballs for heads. The imagery of the deck is instead nature-based, including everything from bones to mushrooms to crystals, and an eclectic mix of animals, from the more familiar White-Tailed Deer to the fairly exotic Blue Angel Nudibranch.
This is a bizarre world, however, one in which animals may have sunflowers or mushrooms for heads, or crystals may grow directly out of their bodies. Third-eyes abound, showing us that the Wooden Tarot hovers somewhere between the natural realm and the spirit realm.
One of the most striking features of the Wooden Tarot, however, is that it does not include any sort of booklet of card meanings. At the time I purchased the deck, Swartz stated on his Etsy page that any book of Rider-Waite-Smith meanings could be used alongside the deck. Many people, however, have found the deck’s visual simplicity, its wide range of plants and animals, and its severe departure from Rider-Waite-Smith imagery to be intimidating or confusing.
When I first got back into tarot in early 2015 and began looking at decks to buy, I was for several months trying to decide between the Wild Unknown and the Wooden Tarot. I chose the Wild Unknown in the end, which was probably wise, given that the learning curve for the Wooden Tarot is a bit steeper than that of the Wild Unknown, which I struggled with at the time.
I purchased the Wooden Tarot after I felt more comfortable with the Rider-Waite-Smith system, and was almost immediately drawn to the challenge of writing a blog post description for each card. To be clear, I do not consider this to be a definitive or “correct” interpretation of the deck in any way. Other people have looked at the same card as me and taken away vastly different interpretations. My interpretations are as much a reflection of myself and my place in my tarot journey as they are a reflection of the cards.
I took on this project because I wanted to learn more about the Wooden Tarot. Over time, I have come to see that, while this series has taught me a lot about this particular deck, it has also taught me a lot about the tarot in general, made me reassess my interpretations of the RWS system, and also try to understand how the Thoth relates to that system. I have also begun to realize that other people find this series helpful, and than a good percentage of my blog hits come from people trying to find an interpretation of a specific Wooden Tarot card. Thus, while this series is for my own knowledge I am also gratified if I can help others.
It’s rumored that Swartz is coming out with his own book of card meanings, given the feedback he has received that people have difficulty using the deck without one. I will finish this series for my own learning, and because while I’m sure that my interpretations will overlap with Swartz’s to a certain extent, they will also reflect a unique perspective on the deck. I do plan, however, to read Swartz’s meanings once I have finished the series.
For those interested in more about this deck, there is a Wooden Tarot Study Group on Facebook, which is quite active and in which Swartz himself sometimes participates. Swartz also has a playing-card-sized oracle deck, the Earthbound Oracle, which shares many of the same visual themes with the Wooden Tarot and works with it beautifully.
Information for those interested in purchasing the deck:
The Wooden Tarot is more or less a standard sized tarot deck. The backs feature a triple-moon design, with a large eyeball taking the place of the full moon and are reversible. (Since the design for the backs was painted on wood, it’s not 100% reversible, given the natural variability of wood grain. However, I am very picky about this sort of thing and I use reversals with this deck quite easily.)
The card stock of the Wooden Tarot is very high quality. It is flexible but strong and has a buttery finish that surpasses any tarot deck or playing cards I have handled. The cards stand up to repeated riffling and have not chipped or frayed after several months’-worth of use. I imagine that this deck will withstand years of tarot readings. The deck comes in a tuck box, which I personally do not use to store it, as tuck boxes generally cannot stand up to frequent use. I recommend making or buying a bag for this deck.
If asked the question, Do you read with reversals? I will have to say, “Yes and no.” Mostly, it depends on the deck. I haven’t been asked this question, but it seems like an Obligatory Topic, so I want to talk a little bit about my practice and why I think tarot readers will strengthen their reading skills by reading with and without reversals.
(Reversals, by the way, are when a card appears upside down. They’re pretty hard to ignore.)
I can’t even dignify it with the word “controversy,” but there’s definitely a lot of variance in the tarot community about whether or not one should read with reversed cards. I began reading with reversals before I realized that not doing so was an option, so I came into this conversation with a practice already established, although it has evolved over time. I think I began reading with reversals because I shuffled my first deck of cards riffle-style. Now, it’s possible to riffle and not use reversals–you just have to make sure that both piles are pointing the same direction before you shuffle them together. But to me, it was just a given that some cards would be reversed and some wouldn’t.
One of the biggest factors in how I use a deck is the design on the back of the deck. Deck backs might seem like a minor aesthetic feature when compared to the fronts of the cards, but make a great difference to me because I draw my cards from a fan, rather than off the top of the pile. A sorta-reversible-but-not-really deck back can make the cards frustrating to work with. (I’m lookin’ at you, Dreaming Way Tarot.) When I say that deck backs are “reversible,” I mean they look exactly the same upside down as they do right side up. Some people think that putting a random pattern on the back of a deck makes reversible, but not always. The Dreaming Way, for example, has a pattern that looks consistent, but it’s quite random. If you take one card right side up and another upside down and let the edge of the upside down one peek out from under the right side up one, you will see a difference.
When I go to draw cards after I’ve shuffled, I fan the cards out and choose based on visual cues. I ask the appropriate question for that part of the spread and scan the fanned cards to see which catches my eye. Sometimes my eye goes straight to a card before the question can even be formed in words, sometimes it takes a little longer. I get the best readings from this method; when I cut the deck to draw cards or draw cards off the top of the pile, my readings often make little sense. I need that moment of “choosing” the cards to really connect, but that moment of choosing still needs to be based on intuition rather than intellect.If I know in advance whether or not a card is upside down or right side up before I draw it, it throws me off.
For card backs that aren’t reversible, I just don’t use reversals with that deck and I’m completely fine with that. Thoth and the William Blake Tarot are the two decks I own and love that have completely non-reversible backs. I still use them all the time, especially Thoth. When I can’t use reversals, I just read the cards in other ways, relying more heavily on elemental dignities, visual cues, and spread position to tell when a card is being weakened, challenged, inverted, or begins to shade over into its shadow side.
Deck by Deck
However, it comes down to more than just the card backs. I decide whether or not to use reversals on a deck-by-deck basis after working with a deck for a while. For instance, the Wild Unknown was the second deck I’d ever gotten. I used it all upright for a while because it was a bit of a learning curve for me as a beginning tarot reader. I think I’d also read some stuff online about people not using reversals and thought that maybe I shouldn’t either. One day I was reading with the deck and got a very strong intuitive sense that I was not letting the deck speak with its full voice. By using it only upright, I was limiting it in some way. Since then, I have always used reversals with the Wild Unknown and get very good readings with it.
Conversely, I have never felt comfortable using reversed cards with the Wildwood tarot. Not sure why, but I’ve just never gotten good answers when I’ve tried to use reversals. I find that the deck creators’ intentions have little influence in this area, but it is good to note that the creators of the Wildwood explicitly say that the deck is not designed to work with reversals. However, they do give us that option by making the card backs reversible, which I greatly appreciate. Even so, I keep the cards all upright when I shuffle them.
In my experience, many decks in the Waite-Smith tradition read well with reversals, while I’m not sure that I would read reversals with Thoth even if the card backs were reversible. My next deck purchase will probably be the Mary-el Tarot, which is more of a Thoth based system and I can already tell that I will probably only use it upright, although, again, the backs are reversible. Perhaps it has to to with the more thematic feel of Waite-Smith, versus the archetypal feel of Thoth.
Oracle decks are another topic of discussion here as well. I get the impression that most oracle decks coming out nowadays of the Doreen Virtue / Alana Fairchild / Toni Carmine Salerno variety are not meant to be used with reversals at all. These decks contain mostly positive messages and are meant to be gentle and uplifting in all situations, so working with reversals doesn’t make sense. However, the two oracles I own are the Earthbound Oracle and the Druid Animal Oracle–both quite different from this vein of oracle decks. Both are designed to work with reversals , since the Earthbound Oracle has reversible card backs and the Druid Animal Oracle has both reversible card backs and reversed meanings in the guidebook. However, I’m still on the fence about using reversals with the former and have never felt comfortable using reversals with the latter. I have no good reason, just my gut sense of working with the decks.
Times when I don’t use reversals, even when I can
There are some times when I choose to take a deck that I usually read reversals with and only read the cards upright. For instance, if a spread uses a million cards (like a 36-card year ahead spread) I will only use upright cards, since so much of the deck is being used that a wide range of meanings will be present. Another instance is if I am working with archetypes–say, asking questions about the role of my birth card in my life, or figuring out who I am in the court cards–I’ll only use upright cards. In those cases, I will make it a point to study the upright and shadow meaning of the card anyway.
To switch in a deck from using reversals to all uprights, I will state my intention out loud before the reading: “I am going to use all upright cards in this reading for XYZ reasons.” (I mostly do this for myself, although some might see it as being about communicating with the deck.) I then go through the deck, turn all the cards upright, shuffle, and proceed with the reading. After that reading, I may put the deck back in order to “realign” it.
Practicing with and without reversals
Many people whose opinions I’ve read on this topic pretty much have an all or nothing policy when it comes to reversals. They either read with them all the time, or don’t at all. People who don’t often say that they tried it but it just wasn’t for them. I think there is much to be gained by regularly reading with and without reversals. The two methods build different strengths as a tarot reader.
To me, reversals add a layer of depth to a reading–they give extra information that might be more difficult to access, especially in a reading with only a few cards. Sometimes they can be information overload for sure, which is why I don’t use them with large spreads as I said above. They do, however, add nuance at multiple interpretive levels of the reading–visually, spatially, with elements, and with numbers. (I don’t know enough about astrology or Kabbalah to say if reversals make a difference in these.) I’ve heard people say that the cards are meant to be looked at right side up, so why would you turn them upside down? Well, the Knight of Pentacles in the Waite-Smith deck faces right when he’s right side up–the side of goodness and the conscious. Upside down, he faces left–the direction of shadow and the unconscious. Isn’t that a meaningful change? It’s not that you can’t see the cards properly when they’re upside down–you have to look for the nuances in how they change instead.
But the real reason for reading with reversals is that they do require a lot of the reader. They absolutely require a lot of your intuition to know what the reversal means in that specific context–is it the opposite of the upright card’s meaning? Does it mean that the upright meaning is weakened or delayed? That it’s a negative influence on the situation? Reversals ask a lot of readers, but they repay the effort in increased precision and, of course, increased skill over time.
Finally, one of the best reasons for reading with reversals is the simplest: are there more reversed cards in a spread than upright? Well, that’s a sign we’ve got some very blocked or negative energy around a situation. That information alone can tell us a lot about how to proceed with the reading before we even get to card meanings.
I also think it’s important to learn without reversals. I only truly began to understand the importance of elemental dignities when I started reading without reversals. Not using reversals with certain decks forced me to listen to the quieter aspects of the cards, which can sometimes be a whisper compared to the shout of reversed cards. Without reversals, you have to give more attention to your intuition in figuring out what the dominant ordering principles of a spread are. Do elements matter the most here, or numbers or directionality? Sometimes it’s nice to just sit with the cards and see what comes burbling up.
But ultimately, I think the most important thing is being consistent and deliberate in your practice. If you’ve tried reversals in the past but didn’t like them, you might want to try them with all of your decks before deciding not to read with reversals at all. Have a trial period with each deck to feel what’s best, and once you’ve got a sense of it, be consistent. I deviate from my practice every once in a while, but I do so deliberately and not without good reasons. If you are afraid of reversed cards, then it might be good to work with them and sit with why they make you uncomfortable. Don’t turn all the cards in a deck back upright just because you’re anxious about what will happen if you read with reversed cards. When we are anxious about what answer a tarot deck will give, that’s a sign we need to think about why we’re asking a question.
Those are my thoughts on reversals at the moment. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this, especially if your practice has changed over time.
I’ve been focusing a lot on posting my Wooden Tarot card meanings lately and I’ll continue to do so after I sit with the majors a bit. But this blog isn’t just about the Wooden Tarot and I want to do some different things, too.
This morning I woke up feeling subtly off-balance. I sort of looked at everything with a “why even bother?” attitude and generally felt discouraged. So I decided to reach for my cards and googled “self care tarot spread.” I figured there would be a million of them out there, but there aren’t as many as you’d think. So I just made up my own.
This is a very straight-forward spread with six positions, although the sixth one was a little tricky for me, as you’ll see in a moment. The questions are: How can I take care of my…
Practice (that is, my daily asana and meditation practice)
And how do I implement these answers?
I used the Thoth tarot, as I usually do when I’m looking to the tarot for some sort of comfort. The answers were lovely until the very end, when I got a nice little jab that I’m still thinking about.
The Priestess. I can take care of my body by listening closely to it. Many of the signals about what I need to be eating, drinking, or how I need to be moving, sitting, and standing are not going to be obvious, so I have to listen carefully and intuitively. Lately, I learned this lesson the hard way by knitting with bad posture, which gave me pain in my shoulders, arms, and hands for over a month. The pain has mostly gone away now because I’ve made a point of correcting my posture, but I wish I hadn’t waited until my body was screaming at me before I changed what I was doing. This is also a wonderful card to draw because it’s my birth card.
The Two of Swords–Peace. Wow, what an amazing card for taking care of one’s mind. It’s literally the peace of mind card! Not everything needs to be worked out in my head; not everything is a problem that needs to be solved by logic; sometimes it’s OK to leave decisions undecided or to reside in paradoxes and contradictions. Honestly, it’s probably better to live that way most of the time.
The Star. Another lovely card! I can take care of my heart by remembering that everything is workable, that new things come to flush out the old, that blood moves through the heart like tides.
The Four of Wands–Completion. Ha–I actually did this spread before I had done my morning practice. I can take care of my practice by completing it!! But more generally, this card is about wholeness. One of the most difficult aspects of meditation practice (and yoga practice, as I’m learning) is to remember to practice throughout the day. Ideally, we take our practice into each moment. Sometimes I do my morning practice, but really resist taking it into the rest of my life. The Four of Wands is about wholeness, and I have to remember to think of my practice as something I do with my whole life, not just something I do for 45 minutes each morning.
The Ace of Cups. How to I take care of my practical affairs? By reaching out to people, interacting with others, opening myself to new experiences. This is about saying yes to opportunities that feel joyous–and to bring a sense of joy to new opportunities.
Nine of Swords–Cruelty. DUN-DUN-DUNNNNNN!!! So how do I carry all this stuff out? The Nine of Swords? To me, if there’s a card that embodies self-hatred, it’s this card. Even more so than in the Waite-Smith deck, this is about self-cruelty.
So what do I do with the Nine of Swords? What happens when you ask a question and the cards give you an answer that is literally the least appropriate of all possible answers? I think many would say that, well, it’s obviously telling you what not to do. I usually never read cards that way, though–it feels like bending the answer to what you want to hear.
And yet, it does seem significant, as if the card were saying, “You have a choice. This is what you have to keep in mind.”
In any case, sitting with this spread did indeed make me feel better. It’s good to remember that doing a self-care tarot spread, regardless of what the cards say, is an act of self-care already. Instead of proceeding in my foul mood, I recognized what was happening and approached it with a sense of curiosity and caring. I think the cards reflected back to me what I was already feeling for myself, but the Nine of Swords is a little sting in the tail that will keep me thinking for a while (or not, as per the Two of Swords.)
I also had Angeles Arrien’s Tarot Handbook by my side when I did this which helped me frame the cards in a healing way. I’ve been meaning to do a post on this book for months, having worked a lot with it this fall. I let it fall by the wayside over the winter as my tarot practice slowed down in general, but now I’m fired up about tarot again. I finished reading Rachel Pollack’s Tarot Wisdom and have started my second pass on Benebell Wen’s Holistic Tarot. I hope to show you all my work with Arrien’s book soon as well.
If you do this spread (or have any ideas about wtf the Nine of Swords is doing here) let me know!
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.
The Court of Stones features animals that are by and large more familiar than the other courts–at least for North Americans (the Page of Stones as the Dik-dik is the exception.) All members of the court are ungulates and herbivores, which makes sense, given the prevalence of horns and antlers throughout the pip cards. It’s almost as if we’ve been following a trail of antlers back to their source, but instead of animals with real horns and antlers, we instead find…animals with stones for horns! (The King is a significant exception.) The other visual theme that unites the members of this court is the smoke that rises from behind them as if they were engulfed in flames, emphasizing the element of fire in the suit.
Page of Stones
The neck and head of a Dik-dik, with stones growing out of its head instead of horns. Two large stones are crossed in front of it.
It took me a lot of internet searching to figure out that this guy is a Dik-dik. I knew there was some tiny cute deer creature, but I couldn’t remember its name without the help of Google. And indeed, the Dik-dik must be one of the cutest creatures in existence. I know there’s some stiff competition for that title, but do an image search for them and you’ll see what I mean.
Like the rest of the Pages, the Page of Stones is diminutive when compared to the other animals of the court–Dik-diks are a little over a foot tall at the shoulder. Male Dik-diks do have horns, but they are short and it does not seem that they use them for combat. And given the species’ small size, I imagine that it does not fight many of its predators, either. Dik-diks’ best defense is their ability to sense when a predator is near, alert other members of their group, and to flee.
These small stones grow from the Page’s head like inspiration. We can think of the Page as representing nascent creative ideas or desires, having ideas but for the moment lacking the ability to focus them into action or make them manifest. Yet the Page represents an important place in the creative or spiritual journey–with the huge eyes and ears of the Dik-dik, they are able to absorb inspirations and influences.
The stones crossed (locked, really) in front of the Page, however suggest a more defensive posture. The Page may have lots of ideas, but they are not ready to open up and express themselves. Like the Dik-dik, they protect their ideas by hiding them or only showing them to trusted friends, rather than debate things in the open.
Keys: creative or spiritual apprenticeship; artistic imitation; the beginning stages of a creative idea; trying out new ideas or techniques without having mastered them
Reversed: abandoning a project or spiritual path early in the process because of challenges that seem overwhelming; being unsure of oneself; jumping into something too fast without a proper foundation or proper enthusiasm; being so hostile to criticism or feedback that progress is impossible
Knight of Stones
A horse with stones growing out of its forehead, transforming it into a unicorn. A small, gemlike flame floats between two stones that point outward.
If you look at this Knight, you’ll see that they are not a true unicorn. Two very small stones poke out from the base of the larger one. It’s almost as if the small stones on the head of the Page were then appropriated by the Knight.
The Knight of Stones is a magical creature. They are able to take the initial energy and enthusiasm of the Page and focus it into the creation of something. The Knight always has a clear purpose, and the stone on their head always points the way forward. Given the mythical quality of the unicorn, however, the Knight may also be hard to pin down or contact. The Knight of Stones may have more of a “wham, bam, thank you, ma’am” approach to creative or spiritual endeavors (or, well, sex for that matter), doing things in short, focused bursts and then moving on to something else. The outward orientation of the stones in front of the Knight suggests that with them, energy is open and expansive, always growing and moving outward. I think of the Knight of Stones as one of those people who (magically, it seems to me) never gets tired.
Keys: very focused creative or spiritual energy; a burst of inspiration that leads directly into action; innate talent or enthusiasm; infectious energy; championing a cause
Reversed: scattered energy; the inability to commit to a spiritual path or see a creative project through from start to finish; a great amount of talent mixed with lack of practical skill
Queen of Stones
A female White-Tailed Deer with a cluster of stones growing from her neck and shoulders. The moon rises behind her.
There is a steadiness and dignity to this image. The Queen is direct–they look us in the eye without flinching. However, unlike much of the suit of Stones would suggest, they are not combative because they don’t need to be. The fruits of the Queen’s creative or spiritual endeavors are on display for everyone to see. Not because the Queen wears them like jewelry or medals, but because they emanate naturally.
It is in the Queen that we see long-lasting achievement. The earthy studiousness of the Page makes them unprepared to make things happen, while the airy fire of the Knight is brilliant but unfocused. Water and fire balance each other here, and we can see that balance in the Queen’s profusion of jewels and their calm expression. Like the Queen of Plumes, I imagine this Queen as a mentor–someone who is brilliant and accomplished, but has also decided to help others instead of just focusing on their own work.
Keys: creative maturity; an artistic or spiritual figure who mentors others; not letting creative or spiritual pursuits diminish quality relationships with friends and family; nurturing inner fire
Reversed: relationships and creative/spiritual pursuits somehow out of balance: a family situation that stifles one’s inner fire, or neglecting relationships in order to pursue one’s own path; arrogance in one’s accomplishments; unwillingness to help others
King of Stones
A leaping ram, bursting from a cluster of stones, and with stones growing out of his horns. The sun rises behind him.
The King is the only member of this court who we see from the neck down, as if a conventional portrait were simply not possible because the King can’t sit still. The ram bursts through/from the stones, suggesting someone who is both supported by their creative/spiritual path and able to transcend its limitations. The King is also the only member of the court to have both real horns and stones growing from them, suggesting their ability to break through obstacles.
I have always thought of the King of Wands/Stones as the get shit done card. The King will not fail, will not take no for an answer, will not give up. In a situation, they may be the part of you that refuses to be broken in the face of obstacles, or they may be the person who can pull some strings (or act as a battering “ram”) in order to get things done. The King is the fire of fire, pure energy and power. This part of you may get you very far, but may also lead to burnout in the long run.
Keys: unbreakable will; being able to carry a project through to the end; the “fire in the belly”; never giving up.
Reversed: a Captain Ahab-like tendency–obsession with accomplishing a goal no matter the cost; focused on ends over means; burnout