Wednesday, August 13, 2008

How I learned to stop worrying and love the Tarot

Left: The High Priestess, from the Rider-Waite tarot deck.


Can I really tell people's fortunes?

Someone asked me, as I was idly reading the tarot for myself, sitting alone and drinking coffee. I told them: I read the tarot.

Isn't that reading people's fortunes? Telling the future?

At that point, I launched into a rather flaky Philip-K-Dick-inspired explanation of pre-cogs. PKD's particular pre-cogs saw a collection of futures and then, one future would appear prominent and more obvious than the others.* Interestingly, two pre-cogs may not agree. In one of his most famous stories, three pre-cogs are used to arrive at a conclusion and it is discovered that one of them frequently dissents from the other two, and this account therefore disregarded. (This dissent was known as the Minority Report.)

In various of PKD's tales, when the pre-cogs tell the future, that future may suddenly vanish. It has changed, in the telling. It was prevented by saying it aloud; also the intention in Minority Report--to actually prevent what the pre-cogs see from ever truly coming to pass. (It was called the Department of PreCrime.)

And then there is Dickens' version. After being shown his unpleasant fate, Ebenezer Scrooge notoriously pleaded with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to please clarify: Is this what CAN be, or what WILL be? And the spirit, dressed like the grim reaper (who never says much in fiction, you'll notice), didn't answer but kept pointing to Scrooges' gravestone. The only thing certain is death.

When I read the tarot, I feel I am getting a series of random snapshots from that person's psyche, all measured in archetypes. The best reading is interactive, when I read the archetypes and the person tells me who/what these represent to them and what it means when they see the images and I repeat the words: The Lovers, The Chariot, The Moon, Strength, The Fool. Who is the Queen of Swords? Who is the King of Cups? They will usually tell me, unless guarded and distant (and some are). They unwind their selves for me, confiding and reaching out. I feel then that I truly know them, even if I have just met them. They have shown me their vulnerability and I show them whatever I think they need: kindness, encouragement, reproach (yes, some come to confess their sins; usually at least one card always gives open permission for this to happen), interrogation, an overall lightness, fun. Every person is different. I ask them what they want from the reading and I try to deliver it as best as I can.

Sometimes, as was true for my friend JW, the person invigorates my spirit and helps me see myself better, too. And I know the reading was also for myself.

People know what they want. They know what future they want. They want permission, encouragement, warnings, best wishes. Perhaps in the past, they had kindly relatives living close by, who could offer these. Maybe they had a priest, a rabbi, someone who delivered the periodic warnings and the necessary checks and balances to the ego. But lately, people have fewer spiritual authorities, even as their existential options have exponentially increased. They want to be in charge (and on some level, realize that they ARE), and yet, give some quiet assent to tradition, old ways, the unpredictability of life and fate. They want to go to a grandma-hippie figure and be comforted or upbraided. Their own grandmother might be in another country or on the other side of this one. This is the reason people have psychics, shrinks, therapists, life coaches.


Left: the Eight of Coins (Craft) from the Nigel Jackson tarot.

I could never have read the tarot when I was young. I just wouldn't have had the nerve to look at a bunch of cards and talk about what they mean. I studied the cards and knew about them, but I don't know when it was that I saw a reading and realized I could do it, too. The first time I read the tarot for another person, I could clearly see that they were trusting me implicitly with their honest life-questions... and it was THEN and only then, that I understood the tarot's purpose; it is a process, an interaction, an exchange of knowledge, impressions, emotions. As I read the cards, it all unfolded before me--my own future too.

During the advertising campaign for Sam Raimi's film THE GIFT, screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton made waves when he said he based the lead character on his own mother, a small-town psychic in Arkansas. More weird shit from Billy Bob, said the press, rolling their collective eyes heavenward. But I heard him when he said that in certain parts of the south, people don't trust educated counselors and professionals the way they would trust his mother. It was also a matter of class, money, motive and overall style. People will either get it, he said, or they won't.

The easiest tarot reading is the skeptical person who has never had it done before. The archetypes represented by the tarot deck freak them out in a big way; they didn't realize they had consented to Jungian psychoanalysis as conducted by a hippie herbalist.

"Who's the Emperor?" I asked one such skeptic. "Your father?"

"You're supposed to tell me that!" he barked, condescendingly.

"Okay, your father."

He grunted.

And let's not forget: Occam's razor works well for tarot, too.


*In Ubik, a group of pre-cogs hired by one corporation is neutralized by another. They do this by making all futures (as foreseen by the pre-cogs) equally probable, thus canceling out any prominent ones from manifesting. (Of course, this essentially made them just like anyone else who could vividly imagine a future.)