I was a Fool.
I set off with just enough money in the pocket of my jean jacket to pay for the reading and walked across town one spring night in 1994 toward Elly Glover’s apartment. Elly was a former co-worker. She’d become too sick to work in the office but was raising money to visit her spiritual teacher by giving Tarot readings. I didn’t really know her and I knew next to nothing about the Tarot, but I wanted to be supportive. This outing was all about helping someone else out in a time of need – or so I thought.
I entered the apartment complex, descending the stairs to apartment C-1. Elly opened the door and soon we were sitting on her living room floor surrounded with these colorful round cards. My first card showed a group of African women in traditional dress conversing – possibly arguing – with passion against a red background. The central figure seemed to be having her moment center stage to present her view of the situation. The setting could have been ancient, but it was familiar. Yes, this felt like the social justice circles where I was spending my days working and my nights volunteering.
Justice was present and an upside down Roman Emperor. I took these as good signs. My overall question had been about if I was on the right path to contribute to social change.
The final cards showing the longer-term future had a different feel from earlier cards. In the Ace of Wands, a baby exploded out of a blue shell with arms enthusiastically raised for the new life to come. She was reaching up to the very last card: The High Priestess. From a deep blue background and sitting between pillars, a woman dressed for ritual sat with arms and legs open, receptive to whatever came her way.
The reading stirred up a desire I hadn’t tended in a long time: a longing for the mystical, the spiritual, the inexplicable Presence of the greater than me.
My Catholic upbringing had shaped this desire. I remember preparing for my first communion. All the CCD classes gathered in the sanctuary of St. Jeremiah’s to practice receiving the host. It wasn’t real, not consecrated, so not the body of Christ, and we were not yet in our snowy dresses and veils with the white shoes and socks to match. So it didn’t matter that the wafer on my tongue was stale.
On the true day of our first communion, all the pieces would come together to be something more, to be perfect. I wasn’t sure what would happen, but from studying the pictures in my nana’s white missalette, I imagined a bird only I could see coming down in glowing light to float above my head. I’d feel its holy presence.
I didn’t see the bird.
As I grew older, the dogma of the church descended like a cage shutting me off from those of different faiths, ignoring my young female voice, offering only static white male images of the Divine. I walked away from the church and channeled my devotion toward social change, working for peace and justice, protest and group action.
The desire was dormant, but these round cards of the Motherpeace Tarot were dynamite opening a new vein of its existence, still potent below the surface of my life.
I bought a deck and laid the cards for myself. At first I had only the little white book that came with the pack, which gave me the basics about the 78 cards in the pack. “The 22 Major Arcana signify cosmic principles and the 56 suit cards or Minor Arcana represent the human and elemental worlds” of fire, water, air, and earth. Vicki Noble’s brief introduction invited me to view the Tarot “as a form of sacred play,” telling me: “There is no one way to read the cards, no correct interpretation that you are attempting to guess. What is crucial to a successful reading is the suspension of ordinary consciousness and a surrender to the power of the visual symbol.”
I’d spend hours alone with the cards, playing with and pondering the pictures. I picked up Mary Greer’s Tarot for Yourself and sat with cards strewn over my bedroom floor to meet the Hermit-Moon wisdom teachers of my birth cards, make astrological correspondences to my sun and moon signs of Temperance and Strength, and find myself mirrored in the Pages as the learners and novices.
I worked with just the Motherpeace Tarot until I discovered that there more – many more! – decks in the world. In a used bookstore, I came across the two volume companion book to the Haindl Tarot written by Rachel Pollack and sat down to eat at that banquet table of wisdom. Engaging with the deck’s imagery of European, ancient Egyptian, Native American, and Indian symbols as well as the overlay of Hebrew letters, Germanic runes, I-Ching hexagrams, and astrological systems, Rachel’s exploration of the cards was a seminar in the mystical branches of the world’s religions and philosophies.
A deck could be a conveyor of wisdom from almost any tradition it seemed. An elusive origin story left the door open for tales that the Tarot came into being to transmit the teachings of ancient Egypt or the Jewish mysticism of the Kabbalah. And although each of these specific claims have been proven to be historically inaccurate, once the connection was made it couldn’t be undone. The symbols of ancient Egypt abound in decks to this day and the worlds of Kabbalah and 22 Hebrew letters give an underpinning to each card’s meaning.
The structure of the elemental Minor suits combined with the Major Arcana also mirror the basic structure of many traditions A late 19th century esoteric society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, was especially adept at making these correspondences between the Tarot and other systems. Though they only existed for a few decades, their imprint on modern Tarot is deep because the Rider Pack – or Rider Waite Smith deck as it is now known – was the deck most available in the 1960s when seekers turned to the Tarot as a guide for a new approach to spirituality.
Through exploring these correspondences, the Tarot became my gateway into the world’s wisdom traditions. My contemplation of the cards now combined with a reading of texts, both deck companion books and original writings from traditions inspiring the images.
Tarot gave a structure, too, to my spiritual practice. Mornings I would sit with cards and books to meditate, engaging in, first, emptying silence with eyes closed, and then in a receptive viewing of, and reading about, the images and symbols offered. I had a low table at the edge of my bedroom covered with a rainbow-hued cloth where I kept out my cards and devotional objects.
My practice was rich but solitary. I didn’t mention my Tarot adventures in the activist circles in which I worked nor to my fellow students in the Organizational Development program where I studied for my Masters of Science in Management. I kept a firm line between my Tarot devotions and my public face. But the Tarot was changing me. The boundaries I’d set were to be tested.
As I watched a housemate fall in love and delight in shared activities from cooking dinner to party planning, a new thought entered my mind, “I would like a partner.” I’d prized my independence and thought my time better spent on my many projects than on dating, but the partnership message was clear and insistent.
Suspicious of the dating game, I turned first to the cards. I used their images to identify the qualities I was looking for in a partner. Some cards I drew by chance and others I picked with purpose to evoke what I sought. I meditated. I got clear. After months of preparation, I placed an ad in the Personals (what we did in the days before dating apps) and went on one date.
From the window seat of the Teapot, I looked up to see the back of a man in a green jacket and jeans with blonde-brown hair down to his shoulder blades at the hostess station. I said to myself, “He’s the one.” And he was. John Laux and I slid right from dating to relationship to buying a house together. We celebrated the day of the first date as our anniversary.
John had a lengthy list of passions – technology to transform the world, the quest to create a hologram, sustainable living, cheesy jokes, Christmas as a day of appreciation, biomimicry, eating strawberries right in the field of our community farm – and even Tarot had a place. When I told him I did Tarot, he excitedly told me a story of seeing a tiny Tarot as a kid and begging his mother to buy it for him.
I shared my Tarot rituals with John. On the new moon, we’d make wishes and pull a card or two. At the turning of the year, we’d do a special spread of cards and set our goals for the year. Fights were not resolved with Tarot, but sometimes the cards came out to help us understand the perspective of the other or place the struggle within a larger context.
I was no longer a solo practitioner of the Tarot. From using the cards with John, I moved more and more into doing readings for others. I started teaching at a local metaphysical shop and launched a website to share my musings with John’s help.
Yes, John was an enabler. In his enthusiasm he’d buy not one but two or three decks for me on birthdays and end-of-year holidays. For my 40th birthday, he threw a surprise party for me with two cakes, each screened with a card from an unidentified, unpublished deck. We ate the whole of The Wheel cake with its trees from each season arranged in a circle against the starry sky of eternity.
Six months after that birthday party, I stood in front of Joanna Powell Colbert’s Gaian Tarot table at the Readers Studio Tarot conference and blurted out, “I ate your card!” Joanna nodded, waiting for the rest of the story to be told. Eating Gaian Wheel became the favorite way to introduce myself in Gaian Tarot Circle, the virtual space Joanna hosted for 5 years where we seekers explored the wisdom of the natural world as woven into a Tarot structure.
A Western wisdom of the land opened up for me when John took on a project for the Biomimicry Group in Missoula, Montana. We didn’t give up our house in Massachusetts and I mostly remained there, but now summers and winter trips included time in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. As John and I hiked immense landscapes, we’d take pictures of each other with arms raised before waterfalls, beside mountain goats encountered on the trail, tossing snowballs improbably existing in August, and standing by a blaze of wildflowers punctuating the charcoal remains of forest fires. We were the Gaian Explorers of Earth. The Tarot alive in our very bodies.
The back and forth between Massachusetts and Montana continued until one night the phone rang with a Missoula exchange. The police man on the other end of the line said, “He didn’t make it.” Tears erupted. I was on my way to Montana to claim John’s body, close up his apartment, gather with his co-workers, meet Death made real in my life.
My packing revolved around legal papers I’d need for the funeral home, but a friend came to help and remind me to bring basics: underwear, my toothbrush. She asked me what else I needed and I grabbed one Tarot deck, Rachel Pollack’s Shining Tribe, and shoved it in my bag.
One morning in the middle of my week in Missoula, out of habit I sat down as if to meditate and just said the word, “Help” and pulled a card. The Six of Birds. A bird with wings spread rose from a circle of stones surrounding a rock Goddess figurine lying on her side. In this image I saw the soul ascending leaving the rock body behind. I cried because, yes, this was the help I needed. Not a happy card. Not a challenging card. But a true card to accompany me in this split open moment.
After I returned from Montana, after the memorial circles and the gatherings, after the bird had risen, I remained in my house drinking in its emptiness. I’d sit in the dark, pretend to watch a show streaming from my computer, fall asleep on the low futon couch. In the morning, I’d sit and stare at the white crumpled tissues tossed and ringing the bed like a circle of flowers dropped after an abandoned ritual.
I hadn’t anticipated this void, this nothingness. When I despaired that this was all there was to be, I received a strange message.
Any work after my return from Montana was an effort but I started up my monthly Tarot classes using Major Arcana guided visualization meditations I’d recorded the year before. I’d hit play and listen along with the rest of the group, letting images rise up in my mind’s eye. One night, a Charioteer readied herself to depart the old city with its red roofed turrets to face a new landscape. I glimpsed a desert with sand shifting and a horizon which never arrived. But the wind was gentle as it lifted my hair.
Debbie, a regular at these monthly sessions, followed me out to the parking lot to ask, “Can I tell you something? I think John was sitting between us.”
“Really?” I replied.
“He was wearing a white robe and had a necklace with a white stone.”
“Well, he wore jeans and boots in life. But maybe there is a different dress code on the other side.” I laughed.
“And he said something. An odd word: rosebud. …. like, um …..”
Her voice was uncertain, but my recognition immediate.
“Oooo, yes,” came out with a long breath. “My first cat was Taffy Apple Rosebud. It’s the answer to my banking security question.” Before he built computers and websites, John worked in security. He had the most elaborate passwords, which he shared with no one, not even me, but he knew all of mine.
“Oooo,” she echoed. We were both surprised. I smiled
Now there was a spark to tend with Tarot as my partner in the dance between the nothingness and the possible. The fluidity of the deck made it my friend. I’d drop cards on the floor, let them gather in wobbly mounds; they were a mirror of my own uncertain form and future. I’d put my hands in the mash and mix without intent, question, or focus. The cards were in no hurry for me to move on, to be happy, have a plan, find someone new.
One night I saw the Death card ringed by what seemed to me to be helpers cards, beneficent energies. Now I had a shape and, if not a destination, a way of moving. I started a weekly practice of checking in with these helpers, to gauge where I was, to have a ritual as messy as my grief.
An envelope from Debbie arrived amidst the messy mixing. In the enclosed letter she told she was trying to cook dinner after another of our meditation sessions, but was compelled to stop and write down the ideas coming through. First, she clearly heard over and over again that though John was the only person in the car the night of the crash, he was not alone. An older maternal figure was there to help him.
Next came words from John for me. They spoke to my longing: he was always with me, still helping me; we were soul mates; he admired me. These were statements that could be made about many couples, but a few sentences were singular: “We melded together yet had the freedom of separateness while moving together as one.” The odd arrangement of the words reflected the life we were working out despite living for a time in states separated by 2,500 miles.
There was also an idea that seemed to be just static on the line, something heard wrong. Debbie wrote that she heard I was supposed to look for a specific poem … perhaps by John or a John Faulkner? Maybe this was a poem I loved or one that John wanted me to find to know about his love for me?
I didn’t believe there was such a poem because, well, John didn’t like poetry. Metaphor was not his language. He was concrete in his communications and actions were the expression of his care. When a friend asked once, “What is the most romantic thing your partner ever did for you?” My immediate response was, “Buy calcium orange juice.” He started making this purchase when breakfasts at his loft became a regular event. He worried about my bones because I didn’t milk. So a poem was unlikely to be his mode of sending messages.
But I didn’t care that there might be something misheard here. I press the lined paper of Debbie’s letter to my heart.
I’d forgotten about the possibility of a poem when I pulled the Andrew Goldsworthy photography book from the shelf. I flipped its large pages, opened to a typical Goldsworthy nature sculpture of yellow leaves threaded together slinking down a dark stream.
A piece of white folded paper waited in the seam.
I picked up the paper, held it for a moment. I unfolded one flap. Yes this was John’s handwriting. I unfolded the other flap.
The opened piece of paper was, yes, like a poem with broken lines and Dickinson dashes, a meditation on his life and work that ended with:
Challenging – desire – challenging –
Love- challenging – desire –
Challenging – my love for you – Carolyn –
Will anyone know my feelings? – Will anyone know
How much you have meant to me?
Of course they will – You will allow the desire.
These words were the eruption of Life – and love, and desire – into Death. Their existence and that I found them in their hiding place stunned me.
I still lack words to express what this encounter stirred in me. Without adequate words, I offer a Tarot image to give you a glimpse of the boundaries breaking between the worlds I experienced.
In the Gaian Tarot’s Awakening, a dark figure stands open-hearted before the Divine above the dark passage into Ireland’s Neolithic mound at Newgrange, the best known monument in a complex of burial and astrological sacred sites known as Brú na Bóinne, home to the Celtic God of Love and Dreams Aenagus.
Most of the year Newgrange’s interior lies in darkness, but on Winter Solstice morning a roof box at the entrance is arranged such that the rising sun is channeled to flood its passageway and chambers in light for 17 minutes.
In these moments, Dark and Light mix together. I imagine they rise and fall exuberantly like long separated lovers to conceive the next spiral of the world’s becoming. Dark and Light each need moments of their own fullness, but then their reunion on the Solstice creates that generative energy that the Italian poet Dante named so beautifully as the “love that moves the sun and other stars.”
The Dark does not actually birth the Light. The Dark and the Light – after times of separation – come together to conceive and birth Love. They begin a partnership of nurturance to bestow on Love their own best qualities that might be named as: intimacy, mystery, surrender, passion, growth, and joy. The inheritance of Love is both Dark and Light.
The Tarot, too, I’ve found to be a weaving of Light and Dark, Life and Death, Grief and Ecstasy, holding me at the extremes as well as through the mundane circling of the years. The Tarot, as a guide made of faces and forces from centuries past and between the worlds, can accompany and cheer you, too, challenge and enlighten you as you journey through the days and nights of your life.
Wow, you read all the way to the end of this long post. Thank you for listening. This is the preface to my manuscript Tarot for Your Soul that I have been working on for a long time. Be sure join my list to be notified when that book is finally done.