This Tarot Card’s Broken

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Part of what put me off learning tarot for many years was my certainty that I would be overwhelmed by the prospect of memorizing the meanings of 78 cards. How is this card with a man sitting by four cups different from this one with a man standing by five? Is it the same man? Does he always lug around multiple huge gold chalices? Is that why he looks so over it all?

Part of what I love about tarot is the way it turns out it’s less about memorizing anything and more about getting to know the cards, the better to understand their message as it applies to a certain person, question, or situation. The man sitting among the four cups can’t even see the one he’s really dying to drink from. “Turn your head! Like, even just a few inches!” — suddenly you’re yelling at the screen at a horror movie to keep the person you’re reading for from becoming the expendable friend who inexplicably goes into the dark basement, knowing there’s a deranged killer somewhere in the house…

Many tarot readers have more than one deck, and everybody has their favorite. I love to sift through unfamiliar decks and see how different artists interpret different cards. Some decks resonate strongly and immediately, others seem deliberately obtuse. Until you watch someone who loves and understands the deck do a dead-on reading with it, and unfamiliar, even off-putting images can become beautiful and clear.

When I first started learning tarot, it was in a casual and conversational class environment. At the outset, we spent each week just sifting through the deck and sharing general impressions of the major arcana (Week 1) and then each suit of the minor (weeks 2-5). I loved the mix-matched sofas-and-incense environment, loved having set-aside time with other new seekers, and I loved the teacher. My, but learning tarot was fun! Until we got through the suit of wands, right around week 3. When we got to the 10, the end of the wand road, my deck broke. My heretofore beloved Gay Tarot, which had been living up to its mission to make traditionally gender-role-heavy tarot imagery accessible to gay men, quit working. This 10 of wands was nothing like the others. Mine was a dude standing by the side of the road with his dog. Everyone else’s hapless Tens struggled under these huge loads of life’s burdens-as-depicted-by-wands — ten of them! — just as the card says we all sometimes will, while my guy just stood there, completely unburdened, by the side of the road, ready for what’s next. Was it a typo? Was some other guy elsewhere in the deck, back bent under the double burden of ten heavy wands and the wrong label? How could this 10 of Wands guy teach me anything about laying down my burden when he wasn’t even carrying one?

Oh, wait…

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How are these even the same card?

“No burden” is part of the point of the card. Much of what we carry — so many of the things we worry about — is extraneous. Like the housewife in the first card, we let ourselves become overwhelmed, fretting over things beyond our control; we struggle to shoulder other people’s problems, to take responsibility for their feelings and reactions, to live up to unachievable expectations that we heap on ourselves. The snail in the second card beautifully and succinctly sums up the message of the 10 of wands: yeah it’s dark, yeah it’s raining, yeah there are a lot of sticks in this pile, but you’re only one snail. You can only climb the one. So forget about the rest of ’em. It seems to be working for the woman reclining in the third card. She isn’t even burdened by clothes, much less by the rest of it. And so our guy with his dog comes to make sense. Sure, he’s got a backpack — we all have some responsibilities we can’t set down, even if it’s just to our dreams and our dog — but his little backpack is manageable, and not overfull. He left his burden of worry and misplaced responsibility that was never his to carry in the booth in the diner in town and is ready to ease on down the road. My deck wasn’t broken, just looking at the same problem from a different angle, which has become for me part of both the challenge and the charm of reading tarot. The book says this card means this; the image kind of more says this. What it actually means for you in a particular reading is somewhere in the mixture, and teasing that out — setting down the extraneous wands, since we’re on the subject, until the important one is left — is what makes reading tarot so fun.

 

 

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