I taught myself how to read tarot cards in college. I went out to Barnes & Noble and got myself the Ryder-Waite deck and earnestly consulted the little book and read for my friends.
I’m the type of girl who never met a dead person she didn’t talk to and I spent much of my teenage years holding seances, (not) moving planchettes towards various letters and numbers, and carting my friends off to all kinds of supposedly haunted spots.
The trips to haunted places have already been well-documented here, so I’ll just say that the seances and other dead-harassing projects went just about as well, which is to say, they went very poorly indeed. Which is no proof one way or another that we survive death, but more a testament to my piss-poor necromancy skills.
The tarot card reading, on the other hand, went surprisingly well. I think I’m about as good as a non-con-artist can get at it and I find that, overall, I’m pretty accurate.
Still, I’d rather know for sure that my grandpa is still around than to be tarot-ly gifted, because, the thing is, the better I get at card-reading, the less I think there’s anything “occult” to it. It doesn’t answer any supernatural mysteries and it doesn’t soothe my anxiety about only having fifty or sixty good years left.
What makes me so good?
Sure, there’s the cold-reading aspect. I’m not intentionally cold-reading the folks I do readings for, but I’m completely sure that I’m doing it subconsciously. I think any member of a group that is in constant regular danger of being victimized can learn how to read even very subtle signals from others in order to anticipate whether or not the conversation is going in a proper direction. Without being aware of it, I can tell when I’m hitting the right marks and modify my reading based on that.
But here’s the other reason: there are only so many things that people care about. As much as we all are lead to believe that we are unique individuals, the truth is that we are not so different. I want to be treated with respect, to be taken seriously, to be paid what I’m worth, to be loved, and to have my loved one’s well-being assured. I bet you do, too.
Seventy-eight cards, all rich in meaning and culturally resonate, are enough to tell the story of anyone’s present circumstances.
Italo Calvino has this book, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, in which the protagonist ends up at a castle that used to be an inn or an inn that used to be a castle, and finds himself at dinner with a table full of fellow travelers, none of whom speak. The host gives them a deck of tarot cards, and, in turn, they lay out the cards in a way that tells a story about themselves.
Calvino is, of course, right. We’re narrative-driven animals and the bits and pieces of things that have meaning to me in particular probably have meaning to the rest of us. Those sacred chunks of story have been honed and tested over thousands of years. We know they resonate. How they’ll resonate to each person is ultimately surprising, but that they’ll resonate is not.
So, I don’t read very often any more, because I find it depressing. My things, whatever they may be–insecurities, deep dark secrets, quiet joys–are important to me and I want to believe unique to me.
I don’t like the idea that I could, say, draw three cards. Let’s say, one for past, one for present, and one for future: the three of swords, the hanged man, and the hermit. I look up at you and say only this much, “The three of swords has to do with heartache and betrayal–this is your past. The hanged man symbolizes great sacrifice and change in perspective–this is your present. The hermit means a withdrawal from the world in order to regroup–this is your future.” It’s bad enough that this could generically apply to all of us. We’ve all had our hearts broken. We all feel that a change in perspective could be interesting. And we’ll all throw up our hands and say, fuck it, in the near future.
No, what I don’t like is that it’s not like I went and actually pulled those cards. I just made it up. And yet, even as I was typing it, I remembered a specific instance of heartache. I knew just what I needed to get perspective on but was avoiding. And, well, I am a hermit. Do you see what I’m saying?
It’s not just that any cards apply to anyone, it’s that every card applies in very specific ways to you.
There’s nothing occult about it. We’re just so damn ordinary.