How I Learned Tarot (And How I Approach It Now)

The first time I picked up a pack of cards to use them in divination was to ask them about a crush. According to them, it was incredibly one-sided and I should have been focusing on something else, but of course, seventeen-year-old me didn't like that answer, so I rephrased my question and reshuffled. It took me a few more consistently similar self-readings to realize this wasn't like shaking a Magic 8-Ball and hoping for a "Yes" after so many "Don't count on its," but it was too late. I was hooked. I started asking about college, my future career, and then little things like "How's my week looking?"

I kept that little deck of playing cards under my pillow, in my backpack, in my pocket, as close to me as possible, as well as the ragged packet of printed-out correspondences and associations for each card. It was my new companion for advice of all kinds, advice no human friend had ever dared to give me. It's not that I didn't have friends, it's just that I never asked them for advice. That kid who takes on all the other kids' problems and tries to be as helpful as possible? Yeah, that was me. So, naturally, I gravitated toward a medium that helped me provide advice in a more softened, less ultra-personal, I-know-all-your-secrets-because-you-told-them-to-me-Friday-night way. The cards make me their messenger, and everyone knows not to shoot the messenger.

I didn't actually read for anyone else until I'd memorized at least 50% of the deck's meanings, and even then, I kept consulting my guide, second-guessing my intuition, which was usually more correct than a concrete definition. Somehow, I still managed to awe my teenage friends with their "fortunes" between show choir and theater rehearsals.

I moved on from playing cards in college, acquiring my very own Rider-Waite-Smith deck along with Susan Levitt's very wonderful and informative Introduction to Tarot. For about a year, I practiced in solitude, dealing with a whole host of personal problems my freshman year that resulted in me transferring to a new university. It was there that I hosted my first semi-public tarot reading event, promoted by the RA of our dorm. Only two people showed up, other than the RA and my roommate, but they both left their readings exclaiming a phrase I'm all-too familiar with now: "How did you know?!" They were complete strangers to me, and it was my first experience reading for people who I didn't even have an inkling of the context in which they lived their lives. I was reading "from scratch," essentially.

Both of those girls walked away with new insight into problems I had no clue about, issues that they provided no details for during the reading, and I went back to my room feeling incredibly proud. I had helped them, just like the cards had helped me through many problems, and it was as simple as interpreting a set of images apparently randomly pulled out of a fancy deck of cards. I say "simple," but that was my understanding at the time.

"It's so easy!" And yeah, it is, because really anyone can do it, but as I continually discover, more experience brings more understanding. I'm not just talking about practicing readings or internalizing all the amazing books on tarot theory out there. I'm talking about real life experience. You have to live to effectively read tarot, and I don't mean that you need to go skydiving or eat fugu. You need your own experiences, and to be self-aware of those experiences, to make the associations necessary to bring your own personal touch to the cards. Sure, you can rely on the textbook definitions of each card, but if those cards don't mean anything to you, what's the point? You're basically just spitting out rote memorization, and how can you weave a story with only the few words devoted to each card in the book?

That's where I'm at today, bringing my own knowledge and understanding of the world to my readings. Each card is a piece of art that I am constantly learning and relearning how to interpret, and through each interpretation, I can piece together a story of someone's potential future. I don't believe anything is set in stone or that the cards tell us absolutes, but they do give us a window to a path we may not have seen before we started.

Tarot is storytelling, and stories are how we learn, how we exercise what-ifs and dwell on our stresses. Stories are everything, and, as a semi-professional writer, I am all about telling stories. Putting together the puzzle of someone's question and building them an answer that gives them a new angle to tackle a problem from is the best thing about reading tarot for me. That's what makes it enjoyable, when someone walks away not with a clear picture of exactly what will happen to them but a new way to solve their situation themselves. Tarot is my tool for helping others, aside from my writing, and I hope I can continue to do that as I build my business.

-Jes