A week or so ago, I was on the phone with my friend Scott, talking about life updates–my big life updates, his last year of internal medicine residency, how covid is in our regions, his recent engagement and plans to have a wedding at an EDM festival next summer if such gatherings can happen then, he and his fiance watching Breaking Bad (him for the first time), my plans to start recapping Better Call Saul for this site–and somewhere in there, he mentioned that he’d recently gotten into tarot.
Ooooh, I thought. I love tarot, and I love talking tarot with people, and it’s always a jolt when someone in the science or medical world is also into tarot, because I don’t think there are many of us. I got a similar jolt when a classmate posted that they were doing an astrology workshop for an enrichment week activity, and some of the ensuing comments, and not just mine, were about tarot.
It’s a weird tension for me to contain inside myself, the hardcore science and rational side and the metaphysical side. That’s a topic I could write a lot about but for the sake of not going off on too many tangents, I’m going to shelve that idea for another day. Suffice to say, it’s a tension that’s at the core of who I am and I’m a little obsessed with science, with wanting to protect people from bad science or pseudoscience scams, and also with tarot and other such mystical systems, and maybe most of all with the concept of belief itself. But let’s set all that aside for now.
With all that aside, whenever someone first mentions tarot to me, the first thing I want to talk about is decks. There are so, so, so many. Different artwork, different books of interpretations, different aesthetics to both.
The first deck I ever had as an adult was the New Palladini deck. Someone gave it to me. There’s a thing about that, that you’re supposed to be given a deck rather than buy one. I’m not totally superstitious but I’m not not superstitious (that tension again) and I’ve always thought that Michael Scott put it best in the “Fun Run” episode of The Office, one of my favorites, “I’m not superstitious but I am a little stitious.” So I was glad to be gifted my first deck. Or my first official deck–I think I had a Rider-Waite deck as a young teenager at some point.
I don’t remember who gave it to me (though I have some guesses) and I don’t remember, at all, what book I might’ve used with the deck at the time. Perhaps it was something that came with the deck, perhaps not. I’ve used and read so many over the years.
The next deck I had was the Osho Zen deck. I must’ve gotten it before the winter of 2004 because I remember using that deck, at least for a bit, while having a magical winter in a magical cabin at YMCA Camp Orkila on Orcas Island with my friend Tracy. This deck was given to me by my friend Gail, who I love and miss.
I didn’t like the deck. I wanted to. It was a gift. It was supposed to be all zen which was somewhat appealing to me (though only somewhat) and some of the cards were beautiful. But the cards that had more difficult meanings were not, and some I found downright disturbing. Something about the cards, and the artwork in them, felt disconnected, like it came from a fractured mind. I didn’t like it. This goes back to being “a little stitious” but this deck that Gail gave me had previously belonged to someone who died by suicide, and I don’t know if that influenced the mojo somehow, or if I just didn’t resonate with the artwork, or both.
Sometime that winter, I switched over to the Aleister Crowley Thoth deck. I can’t remember which of us, myself or Tracy, got the deck first, but now that I say that I’m almost positive she did. I remember there was a time where we were doing readings for each other and she had the Thoth deck and I had the Osho Zen. Tracy felt the same way I did about the Osho Zen deck being off, and we both loved the Thoth deck.
And then, I got the Thoth deck gifted to me as well. A dear friend I knew from my writer’s group on Orcas, and an incredibly gifted singer, gave me the Thoth deck, and The Tarot Handbook written by cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien, which uses the Thoth deck. Susan had gotten both the deck and the book from Angeles Arrien herself, so being gifted them felt like such an honor.
And I loved Angeles Arrien’s interpretations of the cards, which tended to be more spiritual, more positive even when it came to difficult cards, and to use analogies that stuck with me to this day, over fifteen years later. The interpretations were deep and symbolic and rooted in myth but also practical.
Eventually, you leave the books behind, metaphorically and also literally as in I no longer own the book, though when that happened I don’t have a clue. Eventually, those interpretations become synonymous with the cards, like when you’re learning another language and you don’t have to translate back anymore because you can think in both tongues. Or like when you’re learning music and you no longer have to think through each note but can translate it more easily from what’s on the page to what to play on your instrument. Tarot became, for me, more lived in, more fluent.
Eventually, too, the cards came to have their own meanings for me, perhaps slightly off in a nuanced way from what was in that book, from doing so many readings. It must be thousands by now. Maybe more? They took on their own meanings, both in general, and also, often, in the moment of any reading I do, the meaning may shift.
I don’t still have the original copy of the deck, the one a writer and musician friend gave me that used to belong to Angeles Arrien. I left it in a hotel room in Seattle in the summer of 2006 and had no way to get it back while on Orcas. By the time I lost it, it was already so worn. I ordered a new copy off of Amazon, and I either have that one still (less likely) or have had to replace it again over the last fifteen years. I’m not sure.
One funny thing is that Tracy sometimes talks about how the Thoth deck, the one she used back in the winter of 2004 when we were living in a magical cabin and she was reading from that deck and I was still using Osho Zen, was her first ever Amazon purchase. I believe that deck is still the one she uses today, no replacements. Curious, I decided to go back and find out what my first Amazon purchase was, and lo and behold, mine was also the Thoth deck, the replacement copy in 2006.
Whatever copy of the deck I’m on now, possibly second or probably third, and though I’m open to playing with others, I always come back to the Thoth. I’ve dreamt of its cards, and of tarot cards that don’t exist, but I don’t think I’ve dreamt in any other deck. This is the one that’s like a fluent second language to me, a shorthand, and with artwork I love. It’s the deck that fits me best, until and unless I somehow came up with my own out of dreamt images. What deck a person uses comes down to what resonates for them, and that’s going to vary by personality, natural inclinations, aesthetics. For me, for the last fifteen plus years, it’s been this one.