What The Tarot Cards Told Me

·11-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Here’s how I like to have a crisis: privately, while pretending to be totally fine, telling no-one about it until it is over and I can turn it into a funny story. My sister Leslie came to visit me in central New York because I was having une petite crise and had failed to hide it adequately.

She called me. ‘You failed to respond to a photo of your niece with underwear on her head. What’s going on over there?’

‘I’m fine!’ I said and started crying. ‘Totally fine!’

‘Pat!,’ she yelled to my brother-in-law. 'PAT!'

To me she said: 'We are not getting off this phone til we have a plan for me to come see you. PAT YOU’RE GOING TO WATCH THE KIDS, YES? YES.'

It was a damp, cold season, I had not seen the sun in weeks, but I was determined to plan activities for Leslie’s visit. And this was how we came to be standing in the freezing rain, in our raincoats, at a mostly abandoned apple orchard. We walked down the rope line to catch a tractor ride. A man with a grey moustache said, 'I have a riddle for you. You must answer the riddle to ride the wagon.' My sister answered one right away. I failed to answer the riddle three times. 'Am I still allowed to ride?' I asked. 'No,' the wagon man said.

Photo credit: Anna Lang / 500px - Getty Images
Photo credit: Anna Lang / 500px - Getty Images

I was used to feeling short on answers. I was having my petite crise because I was living in a house in the Syracuse suburbs I had bought to live in with my very nice ex and his daughter. Such a good school district, everyone said. And yes, it was. Yes, there was a basketball hoop in every driveway. Yes, it was the sort of neighbourhood where house after house blinked terrifically with Christmas lights in winter and had giant pumpkin inflatables at Halloween. But I’d had a rather grande crise and after only five months of cohabitation broken up with the very nice ex because I am a person who doesn’t know what she thinks of anything until she’s living inside it. It is only once my nose is smushed against the reality of a decision I have made that I can realise I’ve made a mistake. (This is, for the record, a terrible way to be a person.) The point is, they had moved out, I was living in this enormous suburban house in a very good school district an hour away from my friends during a pandemic, and I found I was unable to answer that necessary Byrnian inquiry: how did I get here?

The problem is that I am unable to access whatever part of myself could have answered questions like Is this going to make you happy? Is this a way of being in the world that you want? before, for example, I do things like buy a house in the suburbs. Here’s what I heard inside, when I asked myself these questions: *Nineties dial tone*. And before I could explore that seeming-nothing? Here’s what rushed in to fill the void: a simulation of my very nice ex. His mind as I imagined it. What would please him. This was not a new phenomenon.

‘I’m kidding,' the wagon man said, and my sister and I climbed onto a flatbed which pulled us through the mud of the orchard. We were up so high we could see the way autumn had dappled the hills. The wagon man left us among the rows of trees—Northern Spy, Ida Red, Macintosh— and we filled our bags.

‘Can I ask you something?' I said to my sister. We were huddled in the mostly empty orchard barn sharing an apple dumpling the size of my head. Steam rose off of it and we ate even though the fruit burned our mouths. 'Do you sometimes check in with yourself? Like internally?'

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

‘All the time,' she said.

‘And when you do that like who is the other voice?'

‘What other voice?'

‘The voice that answers the question you’re asking.'

‘I mean, it’s me. I’m thinking about what I should do and then I check in with myself and it’s like, yes, this is what I want to do.'

‘That’s amazing,' I said.

‘You don’t have that?' she said.

‘I do, it’s just that the other voice isn’t me.’

‘My sister put down her plastic fork.

‘Who is it?'

‘My boyfriend if I have one. Or like the other day it was a girl I’m flirting with on Lex? Or sometimes this guy I slept with once who I wish I could sleep with again. Sometimes an old boss I really wanted to impress. Sometimes it’s Mum.'

‘What the f*ck, get them out of there!' she said. 'What if you just ask yourself instead?'

‘I don’t know how to do that,' I said. 'I don’t think I ever learned.'

The apple dumpling steamed between us.

‘We’ve got to work on this,' she said, clapping her hands against the cold.

That night, back at my stupid house in the stupid suburbs, I made a fire and insisted on reading my sister’s tarot. I loved to read tarot, but never for myself, and so I was always coercing other people into letting me read for them. I gave Leslie the option of our family deck or a newer one called Carnival at the End of the World.

Tarot is and isn’t a family thing. My JJ Swiss deck was my grandmother’s, who I’m pretty sure bought them as a kind of Sixties party trick. But she had given the deck to my mother and my mother had given the deck to me. We are three generations of first-born Libra women, and I thought there was power in that. I’ve been reading since I was 12. I sat in the stairwell of my school bus and read for my driver as he navigated country roads. I read in a tent full of incense smoke at my middle school carnival until I made a little girl cry. I read for my students every Halloween.

Photo credit: Stefania Pelfini, La Waziya Photography - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stefania Pelfini, La Waziya Photography - Getty Images

I know what I think when I look at the tarot. I can consider different elements and symbols and then decide what I have to say about them. I do this fluently, and with a certainty I am capable of in precisely zero other realms of my life. When I read tarot, I am willing to trust myself.

But a couple of years ago the family deck stopped speaking to me. The JJ Swiss is so old, so white, so French, so gendered, so three colour. When I saw the Carnival deck I knew it was mine. The art is full of theatre and the natural world, and it’s less gendered, in as much as I do not consider fruit bats in dress shoes or sentient watermelons to have genders. But when the deck arrived, there was a problem. The deck had seven cards that weren’t in the traditional tarot. I had no idea what they meant.

My favourite card of these is Madame Lulu. Madame Lulu is a bear with human legs and arms wearing a purple dress. Her skirt is full of sleeping, upside-down bats. There are also bats on the ground around her, who appear to be dead.

After freaking out over not being able to find a codified meaning for Madame Lulu on the internet for about a week I found a bootleg book for the Carnival Deck on Etsy. It was called, Madame Lulu’s Book of Fate. But when the book arrived, none of the special cards whose meanings I didn’t know were in there. What the f*ck, I said.

I considered not using the cards at all but that seemed disruptive to the deck’s ecosystem. So I kept the cards in and whenever they appeared I would complain to whoever I was reading. One day, I was reading when Madame Lulu appeared. I was about to complain when it occurred to me: the book of fate was Madame Lulu’s book. Madame Lulu is the person who brings the bats to the party. Some people are delighted by bats. Others might scream. She’s a magician and an enchanter. She makes things happen. She’s a damn good time. But magic doesn’t come from nowhere. There’s a cost to making the party happen. Some of her bats don’t make it home. And sometimes Madam Lulu wishes people would show up with some bats of their own. I am Madame Lulu. Madame Lulu is me.

After my sister left I became hyper aware of running decisions by imaginary others in my head. Once I realised it was happening it was twice as bad, because being aware didn’t make it stop. My tarot cards were still out from reading for my sister, and I saw Madame Lulu. Some people say you’re not supposed to read for yourself, so I never had. But my friend Marie-Helene had recently told me this wasn’t true. What Marie-Helene had actually said was that a witch named Dakota St. Clair had told her that pulling a daily card for yourself was a good way to practice and she had taken their advice. Because no-one is allowed to tell you what to do with your own magic.

If Madame Lulu was me and I was Madame Lulu maybe she could help me figure my shit out. It was shocking to see what my brain made of the deck’s art and narrative collisions when I had to apply them to my own life. My disappointment with some cards revealed things I didn’t know I was hoping for. My desire for cards to be about work versus love versus family was surprising. I was able to be kind to myself as certain cards appeared again and again and I saw in them strengths I would never have admitted. I was talking to myself. And it felt great.

The Page of Wands is a swamp creature covered in fungus holding an oar and he told me that the being still and slow in the natural world was a kind of knowledge I had and was allowed to listen to. The Eight of Wands told me to worry less about building permanent structures and having material things because messages are easier to carry when you travel light—like a naked woman riding a pangolin with only a wreath of lemon boughs in her hair, for example. Every time I tried to ask about love the Magician appeared to remind me that my role in this world might have little to do with the kind of love I was asking about. Just shut up and be a magician, the cards told me. The tarot has shade to throw too.

Photo credit: KENJI_KAGAWA - Getty Images
Photo credit: KENJI_KAGAWA - Getty Images

My most repeated card is the Three of Cups. In my deck he is a sadsack-looking man with a moustache wearing a green, writhing coat of snakes, his face and hands popping out as if from a character costume. He stands on a little rock, both feet planted, and there are cups of tea spilled all around him. Except one, right next to his feet, which is full enough. But he cannot see it, because the snakes are blocking his view. This card tells me that, yes, some cups have spilled, some things are lost or messed up, but there is plenty left. Alas, I am too busy wiggling around in my own sadness to see it.

When I pull this card I laugh. I use this card to say to myself, girl, are you wearing your coat of snakes again? Maybe, I say. No one wants that. I say. There is still a cup of tea here. Just look for it. Okay, I say back to myself. I will try.

As I start boxing up my house in the suburbs, as I look at rentals back in the village where my community lives, I sometimes catch myself. What would so-and-so think about a first-floor bedroom? And I make myself stop, and pick up the tarot deck. Pull a card, I say to myself. What would so-and-so think of this yard, the colour of these walls… Pull a f*cking card.

The cards are a mirror. A way of tricking myself into thinking I’m bouncing an idea off another person, but the person I am bouncing the idea off of is me. I don’t use the cards to make decisions. I use them to practice talking to myself instead of other people. To pull my own self to the surface again. I like to think that someday I won’t need cards to do this. That this practice is a matchbook under a wobbly table leg I’ll eventually restabilise. For now, I am enjoying getting to know the part of myself who, when I am having une petite crise, can laugh and say, 'Take off that coat of snakes, honey. There is tea left in the cup. There is plenty of goodness here, if you would only look.'

The Crane Wife: A Memoir In Essays by CJ Hauser is out on July 14.

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