I am the Knight of Cups and my project is the World.
That can go two ways, my tarot reader tells me. We're about 45 minutes into my "Creative Flow" astrology and tarot reading, which is at least in part meant to get to the bottom of a family memoir I've been stumped on for almost a year now.
"The world is this big, huge thing. Big, huge, chaotic, crazy, f--ked up, beautiful, terrible, wonderful thing," my reader says. "So you can't put your arms around it. But you can go, with your little cup, and take a distillation of the good things of it and bring it back for others."
"You can't expect to explain the world," she goes on sternly. "You can't expect to represent it."
She turns to my obstacles. An Ace of Coins upside down — I am refusing to start my project in a serious, disciplined way. And Judgment — "life after death," she says, then calls it a "weird little obstacle."
I'm trying hard not to give away that this means something to me.
I didn't come to tarot with my eyes closed. The only time I had ever had my future read was by a dubious palm reader in Seattle's Pioneer Square, who told me I was being watched over by "a French woman."
Naturally, then, I was a little skeptical of the growing tarot card craze that seemed to be sweeping everyone I knew up into a karmic, metaphysical frenzy. Aren't we all too old for this? I thought when people were reading each other's cards in my college dorm. This was only exacerbated as the years went on after I graduated and moved to New York — on Twitter or at parties or at poetry readings, it seemed as if everyone was mentioning tarot. As the Village Voice recently observed:
New York is in the middle of a tarot revival. We live in a city where covens like the Witches of Bushwick host parties covered by The New York Times, where occult shops run by young practitioners are thriving. And if nothing else, the deep selection of smudge sticks at the Gowanus Whole Foods is a reminder that the line between the mainstream and the occult has dissolved. Divination is back, more publicly than ever before. [The Village Voice]
And indeed, nothing quite serves as the harbinger of a divination craze more than the popularity of tarot.
Understandably, there is plenty to attract someone to tarot — who doesn't want to know who they're going to marry, and how many kids? — but in actuality, card reading today is far less about the future than it is about the present.
In fact, tarot actually wasn't even used to predict the future in the first place. We don't really know where it all began — even the origin of the word tarot is a bit of a mystery — but we do know that the cards were first used for games, just like a regular deck of cards.
Even the design is similar to the decks we're familiar with: Tarot has 22 "Major Arcana" cards plus a Minor Arcana consisting of four suits (Swords, Wands, Cups, Coins) with 10 pips and four face cards (Page, Knight, Queen, King). Each card hosts a pictogram representing the theme of the card, although the actual art varies from deck to deck. The most well-known images are from the Rider-Waite deck, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith in 1910. My own reading was done with the rich Golden deck; my reader, Jessa Crispin, has even collaborated to make her own cards, the Spolia.
By the early 18th century, tarot cards were being drawn for more mystical, occult purposes and would help to shape the lives and works of some of the greatest minds of the Counter-Enlightenment and Modernism: Madame Blavatsky, Salvador Dalí, W. B. Yeats, Italo Calvino, and Carl Jung, to name just a few. But as with all things that veer into the metaphysical, it wasn't without exploitation: Scams abounded.
A "reading" can happen in any number of ways: There is usually some shuffling of the cards, some meditating over them, and then the actual drawing. The cards are often laid out in particular pattern to be understood, such as the popular Celtic Cross spread. There are numerous variations of this, too — some people just prefer to draw a card in the morning and observe how it manifests in their day.
The reason I returned to the world of apparent woo-woo might have sounded familiar to Yeats or Calvino. I had hit a desperate case of writer's block in a project I was working on, a memoir about my mother growing up in the South. It had started as a college thesis and while my head was swimming with ideas, it seemed I could never bring myself to sit down and write. What's more, when I did open up the document, the weight of the massive project paralyzed me. I hadn't written anything new or productive in months.
I sought Crispin out to do my tarot reading because of her expertise in reading for creative types — and because I had heard glowing things from my writer friends. When you get a sense of her career, it's not hard to see why.
One of the foremost experts on tarot in the country, Crispin is actually better known as the editor and founder of Bookslut.com, a noted online literary review. She has also published work everywhere from The New York Times to The Guardian and The Washington Post. Her latest book, The Creative Tarot, was written up in The New Yorker; it was published by Simon & Schuster. She is, in other words, not a crazy person.
That being said, I didn't know what to expect at all.
During her reading, over Skype no less, Crispin is gently irreverent, allowing me to choose what to believe without the straight-faced seriousness of my Pioneer Square psychic. She rolls her eyes when what she is saying sounds more far-fetched, and she explains the cards in a way that is totally digestible — Judgment, for example, is literally life after death. "Maybe you're waiting for angelic horns to blow to let you know it's the right time [to begin writing]?" she asks me, almost teasing, when she draws this as one of my obstacles.
When I tell Crispin that I've never had much luck with heart lines or horoscopes, she sets me straight: "[With tarot], there is an outcome card but it's always just kind of like the direction in which you're pointed. I believe in free will." Tarot as problem-solver rather than a true clairvoyant is certainly easier to digest.
Crispin additionally waves away the smoke and mirrors of occultism. Addressing the widespread belief that your first deck of tarot cards needs to be gifted to you, not bought, Crispin writes in The Creative Tarot that, "I have a Virgo moon, I have no time for such nonsense."
Of course, there is some leap of faith involved in her reading. After all, these are cards randomly cut and shuffled to tell me what is happening in my life. But Crispin is curt here, too. "You can try to shut off your dream world, your irrationality, your religious beliefs, your need for mystery and greater meaning, and so on, but most of us really do need that side of ourselves," she writes. "If it were possible for man to be 100 percent rational about all things, then the French writer Voltaire, king of the Enlightenment, probably would not have been a crazy, racist anti-Semite."
In a conversation later, Crispin frames it more prosaically: "The rise of Trump is not a rational thing." And yet, here we are.
Perhaps I'm predisposed to take the plunge — writers and artists in particular seem magnetized toward tarot readings (and let's just say I have on good authority that poets are really into this stuff). It is a natural pairing: For one, there is that aforementioned rich literary history tied up in tarot. For another, tarot is typically far more a creative act than it is a metaphysical one. Tarot takes creativity. Tarot takes narrative.
"Tarot readers tell stories — stories that might not always have a logical sense but have instead an intuitive meaning," Crispin writes in The Creative Tarot. "The story is guided by a feeling, or perhaps the mood a color suggests to the reader, or strange coincidences in the pictures…This is a creative act. And so artists, used to working in that way, often take to the decks like ducks to water."
One such artist is a poet friend of mine, Julian Delacruz, who has recently started doing readings of his own. "I realized [tarot] wasn't that different from analyzing a book," he told me of discovering his own attraction to the cards. "I can draw the card and read it like you would read a book in a [college] class, where you're required to analyze what this means. But you're applying it to the person's question, you're applying it to their dilemma."
Angelica Bastién, a Chicago-based writer and tarot reader, explained that it helps one to reach into themselves for the answers. "There's something dreamy, archetypal, and intense to tarot as if it touches a part of ourselves we don't care to admit exists," Bastién told me. Tarot reader and author of the Modern Oracle newsletter Emanuela Betti likens "Scorpio (which corresponds to the Death card)... to Gothic literature, German Expressionism, Film Noir, and the Horror genre." She then makes Bastién's connection between the archetypal and the personal: "Tarot requires us to dig into our imagination and personal history, urging us to confront our desires and inner demons."
Despite how it all sounds, Jessa Crispin insists that tarot isn't therapy. But "it can be a little like therapy, sure," she eventually confesses in The Creative Tarot. Regardless, in the end there is still that whole "free will" thing. You are the only one who can ultimately understand what the cards mean.
And therein lies the rub. Tarot is so crazy popular — and, I was surprised to find, so genuinely helpful — because it is about you. It is whatever you need it to be. And sometimes that means it's the tough-love truth you have been unwilling to face. Whether you believe there is a greater force guiding you to pick the cards, or if you simply choose to dwell on a certain thought or idea and how it manifests in your life, tarot can be as magical, or not, as you make it.
Looking over my cards, Crispin repeats something she said before, in drawing the Ace of Coins. "You've just got to start."
I nod — because suddenly, I know.