So the other day, I was doing my Tarot cards. Yes, I know. You are now completely doubting my sanity.
As a young adult, my aunt introduced me to Tarot cards. A lovely ritual harkening to the calming influence of my beloved aunt, involving the meditative practice of shuffling cards while concentrating on a problem, dealing them out in a specific order, of which there are many options, then reading their meanings that are meant to inspire introspection and incorporate a bit of “magical” thinking, as the outcome is thought to be governed by some divine intuition or spiritual power.
My aunt was always the yin to my mom’s yang. She lives in an old Victorian farmhouse in a sunny meadow up in the Santa Cruz mountains. She heats her house with a woodstove, keeps everything the same (a creature of habit and sentimental value) so that every time you visit, it’s like stepping into a zone of timelessness. For a kid that moved quite a bit and always lived in newly built houses, this was always so comforting. If you happen to admire something pretty of hers, she often gifts it to you, with the casual disconnection of someone who holds no value for earthly possessions, meanwhile keeping every book she has ever read. She has long white wavy hair, clear blue eyes, perpetually lightly tanned skin, and occasionally likens herself to a witch. Wearing lightly draping linen clothes, clogs, long skirts, big hats, and neutral tones, she is the kind of person who would visit our homes (in all the different locations) and after she left, her scent would linger. Even years later, I could identify her perfume. Was it patchouli? Lemongrass? No...as I happened to discover one day in the perfume department at Macy’s, when my aunt’s signature scent wafted by my nose, my conundrum of an aunt wore Calvin Klein’s Eternity. Where my mom has interpreted her difficult past with more concrete realist cynicist thinking, my aunt gravitates more towards the alternative side, meditating daily and welcoming a constant revolving door of interesting house guests with both an open mind, sense of obstinate optimism, and a cynical countenance all at the same time. My brother and I have both crashed with her over the years, soaking up her magnetic energy which seems to dare others to embrace their own idiosyncrasies with her same indifferent irreverence. She was my introduction into magical thinking.
Although Tarot cards have been around since the 1400s, their current purpose was not created until the 1800s as part of the Spiritualism movement. During college, my first (and only) research paper was on Spiritualism. At the time, I didn’t realize my love of research, probably due to the fact that it required books. I now realize that the old methods of research just weren't fast enough for my brain. I love the new version where I click and click, following the wormhole, spiraling through the world of information. So, in my young naivety about research, my professor accused me, the rule-following perfectionist, of plagiarism, not due to verbatim copying of words, but for not citing enough sources and relying too heavily on only a few texts...which was an honest mistake as I viewed it more like a report, not realizing how a research paper differs. I was tasked with re-writing the paper over the summer. I questioned my professor’s motives in shaming me as an “educational technique” until I remembered he had mentioned that he wrote his thesis on the same topic and perhaps had some unresolved issues of his own.
Looking back, with the life experience I have now, I find Spiritualism fascinating. It became popular during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution, at the height of Victorian technological advances, during the lead up to, and duration, of World War I and in the face of the 1918 global influenza pandemic. The movement united the miraculous and unknown with the rational and verifiable. It was a way of looking at the world through an alternate lense, an attempt to elevate oneself through magical thinking while also embracing the comfort of religion, the theory of an afterlife, and the recent ability to analyze invisible phenomenons through new scientific methods and modern technological advances. As an attractive way to deal with grief, fear, increasing economic disparity, strict gender roles, and rigid social constraints, there was immense appeal in the suggestion that through natural intuition, anyone could achieve a position of power, communicating with the deceased using Tarot cards, Ouija boards, crystal balls, seances, spirit photography, and palm reading. Incorporating theatrical and literary elements, allowing females to play a prominent role in its leadership roles, and lending an opportunity to shed notions of propriety, it was easy for the movement to be embraced. With the invention of the “penny press,” a faster, cheaper style of printing, “tabloid” style daily newspapers were created, which were more affordable to purchase, more widely available, as well as financially independent, advertising and sales driven, and able to rely heavily on gossip, opinion, and editorial pieces. The Spiritualism movement, along with other oddities, like those of P.T. Barnum, took off in popularity through editorial mention in these daily papers.
I can relate to being drawn to the idea that there are powers, greater than us, beyond our comprehension, but somehow incorporating science, unlike religious beliefs which exist outside of the scientific world. For instance, meditation has its roots in both religious tradition and alternative medicine, as well as traditional medicine. There are magical benefits, as well as concrete proven health benefits. You can find everyone trying it, from Buudhist monks to suburban housewives, its effectiveness supported by both traditional and alternative medicine. You could really even consider the current essential oils trend as a modern day version of Spiritualism, a current version of Alchemy. Isaac Newton, mathematician, physicist, astronomer, theologian, and philosopher, devoted years to the ancient study of alchemy, the philosophy uniting mind, magic, religion, astrology, and science, focusing on turning lesser substances into new matter, such as gold, as well as seeking a higher spiritual discipline, like that of the spiritualism and The Golden Order movements. Who knows? Without his ability to open his mind to possibilities beyond current understanding, he may never have discovered actual scientific phenomenons such as the laws of motion and universal gravitation as well as his groundbreaking work in light and optics.
Very interesting to consider the rise in popularity of the Spiritualism movement during our current situation, with our own experience with pandemic as a frame of reference for the fear and stress of the unknown that we currently feel. My own mind loves to obsessively stew in the unpredictability of life, while my more rational mind tries to gain some sense of control through any means necessary. Hence, my use of tarot cards. So there I was, shuffling the cards. I dealt my hand, and began to read the meaning.
Tarot Cards consist of a deck with five different suits and each card has a different meaning, depending on the direction it faces and the location it appears in. The card numbers, which predict meaning, are in Roman Numerals. The card that appeared in my “What’s at hand” location was upside down. The card that appeared was IV of Pentacles.
“Challenge and opposition are on the horizon.”
“Oh no Coralie! Challenge and opposition! I hate challenge and opposition!”
“What is opposition?”
“Like an argument.”
“Probably with Ryan.” (my ex-husband, as you can imagine, many arguments pop up when attempting to “share” children.) The child read my mind.
“Probably. Darn. I hate arguments. Shoot. Argh.”
So, as my blood pressure skyrockets and images of all the arguments of the past fly through my brain while I try to work out what the next argument may bring, I shift into that horrible place of fight or flight. Over Tarot cards.
You may be thinking, “She let a set of cards get her this worked up?” Yet, it wasn’t the cards. The cards are meant to get you thinking. To reveal your own truths to you, through the freedom of magic and the mystical, just like meditation. My stress was already there. It simmers just beneath the surface, so closely that even my five year old could call it.
At this point though, I am also asking myself why I even take stock in such a silly tradition. I can’t believe I’m so worked up about cards. Although I spent a six year stint living in Santa Cruz, CA, the mecca of open-minded thinking, and it definitely encouraged my more creatively thinking side, I’m now most definitely re-rooted in my original world of grumpy New England stoicism and classical ideals that hunker down in the face of ever shifting harsh weather. Magical thinking is harder to find here, but it does have small pockets, such as nearby Salem, where I found my current Tarot deck.
After I recover a bit from my first gut reaction, I begin the phase of denial. Maybe it isn’t true. It can’t be true. Maybe I read the cards wrong. Maybe I misinterpreted the description? In the most popular set of Tarot cards, the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, each card has a unique beautiful illustration by Hermetic Order member, Pamela Colman Smith. As I look back at the beautiful illustrations, it occurs to me. I have a hysterical epiphany. It reaches down deep into my soul and bubbles up into overflowing laughter. I am ridiculous. My active stress about a possible argument is just as ludicrous as imagining that cards predict anything other than my own thoughts. I read the Roman numeral incorrectly as it was upside down. I reversed the Roman numerals. It wasn’t the IV of Pentacles, it was actually the VI of Pentacles. I had read the number backwards. This card signifies:
“Don’t let your insecurities push you into being a workaholic. Choose well-defined objectives that will bring growth. Slow down. Try not to borrow money now - new obligations will take the starch out of your sails.”
If you have read any of my previous pieces, you know that I often write of the value and pitfalls of perception. There is a place, where perception and magic meet, and I find that this crazy current time is the perfect environment for practicing this theory, just as the early 1900s was. As a divorced, coparenting woman, I am faced with difficult situations that don’t match my expectations all the time. Christmas doesn’t look like it should on the years I don’t have my children. I see it looming on the horizon, an empty household, an entire developmental stage and year of their life that I didn’t get to experience what Christmas morning looks like. A hole in the photo album. A holiday where I couldn’t make it real for my daughter with my new husband because there was a hole in my heart. Any upcoming difficult discussion regarding the visitation schedule is fraught with uncertainty and the baggage of every discussion that came before, informed by my experience with the relationship, lacking any possibility other than my past knows. In my mind, the cards are already dealt to predict frustration, anger, and disappointment. Here is where magic and perception meet.
I often explain my theory of the mind to people with this example. When a person first gets their license, they imagine how exciting it will be to drive to school. This is as far as their mind can, at first, expand. After a little while of imagining that, the thought pops into their head...I could drive to the mall, or to a museum, or wait…(the mind expanding further) I could drive to another state! Or, I could drive to an airport, fly to another country, rent a car, and drive there!
It takes imagination to expand the mind. It takes a belief that there is more possibility than your own mind can comprehend. It takes letting go of everything you believe in, everything you know, your past knowledge that predicts to your mind what is possible. When I get into this situation, like the first Christmas I faced without my children, I tell myself to “cast my mind wide.” Much like the Spiritualists were doing. They were imagining the existence of things they could not see, beyond everything they had been taught. They were practicing with new rules, where societal norms were turned on their head, traditional power roles were reversed, and the unknown was the focus. Where even talking to the dead was not ruled out. This is the place where magic lives, and perception changes.
When I spend time with my aunt, it is like being present in an alternate universe. Like a psychology experiment, where two sisters, of like mind and upbringing, are examined to see how perception, with the same foundation, can differ. As a child, my aunt always felt very similar to my mom, comfortable to me, like some sort of biological knowing. She had the same references, the same perspective that being raised in historical New England gives a person, the same artistic flair, the same appreciation of beauty and nature, but somehow, her perspective tilted in such a way that it was like viewing my mom in another dimension. My aunt’s world, viewed through a different lens of perception, was completely different. In her world, crazy risks weren’t so crazy. Things happened that could not be, and didn’t need to be, explained. Looking at the world, from the perspective of some cards and what they could tell you, was perfectly reasonable and psychics could share valuable knowledge with you.
When I expanded my mind, in preparation for that first Christmas morning without my children, and for every tough moment since then, when my hope and expectation for what parenting should look like do not appear possible, with effort and time, my perception bends. My mind flies open and grasps the outer edges of my own reality. A letter to Santa flies into view, explaining to him that we have certain circumstances that make it necessary that he bring our presents a day early. A bag appears at Marshalls that Santa is supposed to bring your gifts in. I see a sharpie marking out the date, 25th, on the bag, and Santa’s handwriting writes, 24th. All of a sudden, Christmas morning comes back into focus...sharp, clear, perfect, and full of magic. Magic that makes anything possible and can create a reality where the impossible, becomes possible. Where just a moment ago, I only saw driving to school as reality, and now I am driving in another country, on the other side of the road.
A friend was messaging the other day, about her daughter’s big emotions that are a result of this current reality. My daughter too, is having big emotions. Dissolving into a puddle of tears is a common occurrence. Yet, when I stop, and notice, opening my mind out of my own storyline of lack and frustration with our current situation, I also see JOY. In all caps. She is in her playroom singing joyfully to herself. She is chatting away happily about how beautiful a painted mailbox that we passed on a bike ride was. I reminded my friend to notice the joy. That, if you open your mind, you will find it, and your perception of the situation will be transformed. One day, my daughter blurted out, with pure excitement, “Daddy wears such funny designs on his underwear every day! I can’t wait to see what underwear Daddy wears tomorrow!” Children are amazing at opening their minds to new possibilities and seeing the magic everywhere. My husband’s choice of boxers is something to look forward to. The more her world alters and shrinks, the more her mind expands.
The popular Rider-Waite tarot deck is based on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society that incorporated ideas from the Wiccan religion, Astrology, the paranormal, and spiritual development into this first, mass-printed deck. One of the order’s most famous members was famous poet, W.B. Yeats. Many wonder why Yeats would have been involved in such a dubious movement as spiritualism and The Golden Order. His own words actually give us insight into what value the movement held for him.
“The world is full of magic things patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” -W.B. Yeats
Much like Elizabeth Gilbert discusses in her book, Big Magic, Yeats similarly believed that his talents came to him from some mystical transcendent power, and not through talent of his own. He undoubtedly found inspiration in the magic, rituals, and imaginative ideas of the secret society. It opened his mind to find his creativity and imagination, altering his perception.
After the birth of my daughter with my current husband, I went through a period of struggling with depression. My step-parenting situation was very difficult, I was back in the all consuming land of babies after years of being out of it, and I was dealing with the aftermath of my parents’ divorce, processing it myself, while also trying to support my mom in her pain. I went to celebrate my birthday out to dinner with a very good friend from college. Tears, so frequently sitting just below the surface during that time, threatened to overwhelm my lovely birthday dinner. My friend, who is a talented writer and extremely wise, handed me a birthday card. It read:
“At the mature age of 40, you know a bracelet can’t make your wishes come true, but a) I thought it was cute, and b) I thought it would be a good reminder of the almost magical way you have always been able to make so many of your own wishes come true - no matter what obstacles you faced...It’s not magic, of course, it’s diligence, positive thinking, sacrifice, and pure love. I know life has been challenging in lots of ways and that it’s not always easy to see when or how those challenges will come to an end. But I also know that you believe life is wonderful, full of beauty and magic, and that will guide you.”
She reminded me that day, that the way out of suffering is creativity, and a sense of magic...the belief that anything is possible if you open your mind wide enough. Where it is even possible to hear the voices of your loved ones, speaking to you from beyond the grave, where meditation can reveal your own truth and wisdom to guide you when you are lost, and a deck of cards can reveal your future. I don’t care if the magic is real or not. It makes my life more fun, more worth living, inspires my imagination, and leads me out of suffering. That is all the proof I need.
Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert