Category Archives: Personal

Things Unfinished

IMG_8536Have you ever signed up for something and then not finished? Or maybe just haven’t been able to work at the rate you’d prefer?

I’m still working through the Correspondence Course through Tarot School. I’m a little over halfway, which feels like a huge accomplishment given how much I’ve done since I first signed up (earned a graduate degree, got a teaching license, got my own classroom, wrote my first book). My teacher, Wald Amberstone, tells me that hardly anyone actually finishes. Plenty of people sign up, but most of those don’t make it beyond the first lesson. I’m guessing that it’s because it’s a lot more work than people expect, and much of that work is tedious. Right away, you learn exercises for contemplating cards at many levels, but then you actually have to write these contemplations out for literally every card in the deck. I enjoy these sorts of tasks, but even I find it to be really challenging. It takes me forever to finish individual lessons, just because of how much writing each entails. I always learn a ton, though, so the work has been well worth it.

Increasingly, my practice of tarot has almost nothing to do with divination. I still think divination can be valuable, but for me it has a very definite time and place, and that only rolls around once in a great while. Further, sometimes I just don’t want to know things. I’d rather suss things out gradually, tracing the strands in my own journaling and discerning patterns. Without that kind of context, drawing cards can feel starkly off the mark. Only later do we go, “Oh, hey, that’s what that card was about.” By then the information is less useful. We just add the experience to our mental bank and hope to be a bit more astute next time.

I also think there’s a danger in becoming overly dependent on things like daily draws. As meditative exercises, yes, absolutely. But I’ve seen a lot of people get so hung up on what they pull each morning that they give up some of their own agency, resigning themselves to “what the cards said” or making far-fetched connections that, while perhaps valid, don’t actually depend on having a daily divination ritual. Sure, the 9 of Swords could be about your laundry, but did you really need a deck of cards for that?

I’ve never left that liminal space where tarot is both sacred (a map of the universe), but also totally mundane and accessible (laundry). I’m sure it’s something I’ll always wrestle with.

My next project is reviving and reformatting the newsletter. I’ve been writing a lot lately (most recently at Patheos) about identity, and I really want to consolidate some of my web presence. I do a lot, and it’s gotten hard to keep up with the various versions of myself. And if you’d like to keep up with me and my assorted adventures, you’ll be able to do so in one place (more or less)!

Meanwhile, I’m doing all of the things that go along with publishing a book, after the manuscript is done. Turns out there’s a lot! The release date for Traditional Wicca: A Seeker’s Guide (with Llewellyn) is still almost a year away, but there’s still a ton of work to do. I should see my cover in the next few days, though, and I’ll be sure to share it with you all!

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Is Tarot Necessarily Spiritual?

Photo on 8-3-16 at 1.35 PMOkay. First, I need to put on my religious studies scholar hat.

There.

“Spirituality” is not objectively a thing that we can locate and measure.

It’s constructed, both culturally and by individuals. Over time, we ascribe meaning to objects and practices, and eventually those things take on greater symbolism. They become spiritual. For some people.

As a community, we tend to talk about certain things as though they’re inherently spiritual. Meditation, crystals, drinking tea, tarot cards…you can probably make your own list based on the various “spiritual” hashtags from Instagram or Tumblr.

Like the more we meditate, the more spiritual we inherently are. Or the more tea we drink, the more enlightened we become.

But here’s the thing: those things are tools. They’re not in and of themselves spiritual. Thanks to some selective history and, frankly, marketing, we associate them with “spiritual” people. We forget that “religion” and “spirituality” (again, even the perceived difference between those terms says more about our cultural locations than it does about objective things called “religion” or “spirituality”) have looked different across millennia—continue to look different wherever we are in the world. Just doing and having particular things doesn’t automatically make us more anything.

I have at least a dozen Bibles in my house right now. In my hands, they’re just books. For Christians, they may be symbols of something else, but my owning and handling them has zero impact on anything in my life. The power isn’t literally in the book, or I’d surely be glowing by now.

Drinking tea might relax you and make you feel super witchy and receptive to the voices of the gods, and that’s fantastic and valid. But it’s not inherently in the tea. The thousands of other people drinking that tea from the same manufacturer aren’t having the same experiences you are. Your experience has more to do with you.

Someone else (hint: it’s me) is a lot happier with coffee or vodka.

And that’s cool.

Something becomes spiritual when you assign spiritual value to it. If it’s meaningless to you, it will continue to be meaningless no matter how much of it you drink, buy, or practice.

Tarot cards are not inherently spiritual. They became spiritual in time, thanks to the efforts of particular people. They used to just be a weird card game for rich Italians.  If they are spiritual to you, then that says more about you than the cards themselves. And you’re probably awesome, so that’s great news.

Cool.

Okay, taking my religious studies hat off.

Tarot is a part of my spiritual practice, but not really because it’s a divination tool. I see my tarot reading as an acquired skill, developed with long hours of practice over the course of years. Part history, part religious studies, part literary studies, part storytelling, tarot makes sense to me the way interpreting any kind of text makes sense to me. We take a set of symbols and we build meaning, based on our cultural backgrounds, our personal experiences, and our impulses (which are often just sublimated pieces of our experiences, not external messages from nowhere). If the gods are involved, it’s because, on some level, I’ve involved them.

Instead, tarot is spiritual for me because it’s given me this huge body of symbols—a language, if you will—to make sense of other things. Tarot is a map to my world. I think of people and events in terms of cards. I understand abstractions like “spiritual growth” or “initiation” or “shadow work” in terms of tarot symbols. It’s a way of creating meaning for me. It gives me context. I can say, “Oh, this was totally a Seven of Swords moment,” or “Holy shit I need to stop dating Knights what the fuck is wrong with me.” Instead of feeling like I’m alone in the world, feeling something no one has ever felt before, I can find reassurance in the cards. Yes, other people have been here, too. This is the next step on the Fool’s Journey.

It may not make sense to anyone else, but it works for me. It becomes spiritual.

So is tarot necessarily spiritual? That depends on what world you’re occupying, I suppose. For me, the Bible is just a book and a tarot deck is just a stack of printed cardboard. But I can see the power that they hold for people, in different circumstances, and I can respect that. It’s the thing the symbol represents that matters, which depends on context. The American flag itself isn’t holy, but perhaps liberty and justice are. When people get upset at the misuse of flags, it’s not because they believe that the flag is literally the country. The Book of Shadows I keep isn’t my practice of witchcraft. You could set it on fire and I’d just make another one.  I wouldn’t stop being a witch just because you took it from me. My tarot deck isn’t the source of my divinatory powers. If I lost it, I’d just buy another one.   The tea you’re drinking isn’t what’s making you magical. You’re magical all on your own. Your tarot practice is spiritual because you are spiritual.

Tarot School Correspondence Course Review

IMG_3634I signed up for the Tarot School Correspondence Course in May of 2012. I’d been flirting with the idea for several months. I picked up my first pack of tarot cards back when I was thirteen (I’m in my thirties now) and had taught myself to use them by reading books and practicing on friends. I was well-read, but not particularly experienced, and definitely not confident.

My professional life is in academia and teaching, so I’m a big fan of organized learning. I need a lot of structure, whether I’m creating it for myself or working though someone else’s. I was interested in applying some of the same formalities to my own studies of tarot: set reading materials, homework, practice activities, and feedback from an expert I respected and trusted.

There are a lot of tarot courses available online and through correspondence (nevermind the countless books that provide all kinds of curriculae, to the point of being overwhelming). I don’t remember exactly how I found Tarot School; I think it was while researching tarot certification programs. The Amberstones have a couple of published books, a number of shorter audio courses available online, in-person workshops in New York City, and, of course, they’re responsible for the Readers Studio. Their reputation precedes them, so I felt pretty comfortable committing to this course (and chose it over others because of the promised one-on-one attention).

Just to be sure, I purchased one of the audio courses (as a bonus, it was on sale already in recognition of World Tarot Day, and I even had a coupon from signing up for the Tarot Tips newsletter). Over the course of a couple of weeks, I listened to these recordings, taking detailed notes and repeatedly having my mind blown just by listening to the ensuing discussions (the audio courses are recordings of live classes, so you get the added benefit of other students’ questions and commentary, with the Amberstones’ unfiltered responses). I was hooked. I knew that the full Correspondence Course would be worthwhile.

The Cost

The Correspondence Course isn’t cheap; there’s no two-ways about it. You have the option of paying for just the materials and working without outside guidance, which is only a fraction of the price of the full course (and significantly less appealing, in my mind, for reasons I’ll get to). You can also pay a little bit more than the full cost and submit your work via e-mail, which can save time, paper, and the hassle of dealing with the postal system.

I reasoned that it wasn’t any more expensive than one of my university classes (I was in graduate school at the time), and would likely be a good investment if I could turn my work into a professional tarot business. I was also allowed to pay in monthly installments, so the overall cost was bearable. There are courses offered for half the cost elsewhere (even some that offer “certification”), but I haven’t seen one that offers nearly the information, experience, or feedback offered at Tarot School.

But the real benefit of this course is the one-on-one time with Wald Amberstone, and that’s what I feel like I’m paying for. In my household, we joke that it’s a little like calling Yoda and talking about the Force (“EVERYBODY SHUT AND STOP BOTHERING ME UP IT’S TIME TO CALL WALD AND ABSORB WISDOM”). Wald’s experience in tarot is practically unparalleled, and his work has led him to be informed in a number of related subjects. My thinking tends to be abstract and often wanders into other occult subjects, and he has never failed to challenge me. Not once has he spouted self-help platitudes at me, for which I couldn’t be more grateful. He’s totally unpretentious, and always willing to say “I don’t know” if that’s what the question calls for. Our conversations last anywhere from forty minutes to a bit over an hour, and I look forward to them immensely. He doesn’t critique my work, per se, but rather draws connections and observes patterns that escape me on my own. If I had questions in my writing, he answers them. Mostly, he energizes my work, not just in tarot, but also as an occultist in the Western tradition. My conversations with Wald have even impacted my thinking as a Gardnerian witch, which I think is saying something.

The Time

On Tarot School’s website, we’re told to allow about three years to finish the whole course and earn the degree. I’ve never had conversations with other Correspondence Course students, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of this figure, but I’m moving at a much slower rate than that. Between my assorted jobs, writing professionally, running a Wiccan coven, and periodically entertaining the fantasy of a social life, it takes me about five months to finish a correspondence course lesson.

To be fair, I’m also a bit of a freak when it comes to these assignments. The minimum number of pages for each activity (and there might be 20-40 activities that require a writing component in each lesson) is one, with a max of five. The completed lessons I turn in are generally about 50 to 75 pages of original writing. Even if you stick to the minimum, you will have written the equivalent of a ginormous book by the time you’ve finished this course. It’s a lot of work, it requires a lot of time, and I don’t doubt that many people simply aren’t inclined to put in that much effort. Even if you only do the bare minimum, you’re still producing something enormous and profound. You have to be self-motivated.

You can do it all at your own pace, though. If you’re disciplined and patient with yourself, it’s doable. Wald is a phone call away (and always enthused and encouraging…I even butt-dialed him once), and there are outside resources listed throughout the course that can be helpful. If you’re a correspondence course junkie, I’d recommend toning it down and just focusing on this one, just for the sake of time. There’s a lot to be had here, particularly if you give it your full attention.

The Result

Since beginning work on the Tarot School Correspondence Course, I’ve become a professional reader. I have a website, a blog, and a practice out of a local storefront. I don’t make my living at tarot, but I have made enough money to cover the cost of the course several times over.

I have a handle on some of the most commonly avoided tarot-related subjects: Qabalah, astrology, and alchemy. You can choose to ignore those things down the road if they’re not your thing, but they’re no longer intimidating or irrelevant to my tarot practice. I’m excited about them now.

I have my own gigantic body of original writing (whether it’s journaling or more formal essays about particular cards or concepts) upon which to draw when I get stuck or just need to be inspired. I also have a strong enough foundation in a variety of tarot-related subjects, so it’s easier to recognize good sources when I’m looking to expand into some other tarot realm.

I’ve got a mentor I trust.

I’ve developed the confidence to reach out to other tarot communities (through Tarot School, locally, and through other online sources), making new friends, learning tons of things it had never even occurred to me to know.

And I’m barely halfway through the course, three years later. So ask me again in another three years!

I am totally not dead.

IMG_6524In fact, I’m alive and doing better than I have in agessssssss. For seriously.

Thank you all for sticking around, for subscribing to my (now quarterly) newsletter, and otherwise being patient while I navigate a brand new, jam-packed schedule and lots of new, exciting obligations.

First off, I’m now writing a witchcraft blog over at Patheos Pagan, which is my most exciting piece of news. I started in April and I’m very pleased to be able to say that I’m having fun and kicking ass, blogging alongside of folks like Jason Mankey, Ian Corrigan, Lupa Greenwolf, and John Beckett. The focus of my blog, Oathbound, is traditional witchcraft and Wicca, but there are plenty of awesome writers representing a number of traditions. So if you have any interest in contemporary Paganism, Heathen traditions, magic, and witchcraft, you’d be doing yourself a big favor to head on over.

I’m also excited to announce that the second issue of my coven’s zine, The Burning Times, is out! It’s a tongue-in-cheek throwback to the nineties, full of legit magical whatnot as well as plenty of satire specifically tailored for those with a keen interest in traditional Wicca and the heyday of the American occult scene. If you collect old issues of Earth Religion News and wish that you’d been around to hang out at Magickal Childe (or maybe you did), we’re right up your alley. We’re also sure to please former nineties teen witches, secretly hoarding copies of Silver RavenWolf’s Witches’ Chillers series and watching The Craft once a week while wishing for midnight margaritas. You can order your copies of the first two issues here, with free shipping in the US!

On a more personal note, I’m now working at an elementary school and pursuing teacher licensure. As you can probably imagine, that keeps me super busy (as well as tired, exasperated, a little under-the-weather, and weirdly sticky practically all the time). I don’t have as much time for walk-in client readings at the shop, but I’m still available by appointment and online!

I’m also keeping up with my studies with Wald Amberstone through Tarot School. In fact, I just received my first correspondence course certificate in the mail and I’m totally pumped about it because I’ve been working my ass off over here. One of these days I’ll write a thorough review of this course, but suffice it to say that it’s the most comprehensive, intense program I’ve ever seen on tarot (or even in most of my schooling career, on any subject) and it’s been well worth the price tag (cheaper and so far with a much higher return value than anything I did in grad school). I’m currently working through an interim lesson on tarot and Qabalah, which is really pushing me beyond anything I’ve done before.

Back in April, I also took the Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot video course over at Tarot Association, with Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin (and holy crap I’m looking at this listing for the first time in months and the cost has, like, quadrupled). I still haven’t gotten to the book, but it is sitting on my shelf (which is sort of like reading, right?).

I’m working on reviving things over here at Tarot Skeptic, so hang on. I’m just finding my footing again before summer really gets to be in full swing. Look for a bunch of new deck showcases (because the collecting madness never stops), new blogs about stuff (also things!), and new readings available in the shop.

As always, check me out on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and (now! new! mixed feelings!) Facebook.

On Reading Runes

photo 2Those of you who follow me on YouTube or elsewhere on the Interwebs probably know that I also read runes. This site has focused on tarot exclusively, and lately I’ve been thinking I should take the time to introduce this part of my magical repertoire to Tarot Skeptic readers who may be curious.

My approach to runes is quite a bit different from my approach to tarot. The lines aren’t always clear, but I have some very distinct tendencies that are worth noting.

Tarot to me is very much an intellectual exercise rather than a religious one. I don’t practice any sort of purification ritual, before or after readings. I don’t think gods or spirits are speaking to me through the cards. Tarot is not directly connected to my practice of witchcraft. I even tend to avoid religious language, insofar as that’s ever really possible. My tarot study is rooted very strongly in a particular understanding of history (and a belief in the relevance of that history) and within the context of particular esoteric traditions (e.g. the Golden Dawn, BOTA, etc). There’s a level of objectivity (again, if that’s ever a thing at all) present in my understanding of tarot that I find is often missing in other approaches to the cards. When I want to understand the meaning of a particular card, I turn to a scholarly text on either the card itself or the tradition from which it arises, as opposed to meditating on it, consulting some kind of spirit guide, or engaging in a flow-of-consciousness type intuitive exploration. That’s all fine for other people, but it’s just not how I like to roll when I can help it. It feels too nebulous to me, and I’ve never been the sort of person who likes to openly emote.

With runes, all that goes out the window. Reading runes is absolutely a religious activity for me. The runes belong to the gods (a particular group of gods, and, still further, specific gods within that framework) and I’m turning to Them (at least in part) when I use them, whether it’s to perform a reading or if I’m using runes in magical work. I get emotional, I get woo-woo, and I’m quicker to discount all of my usual empiricism. Dana Scully checks out and my Mulder-brain—wantonly, gleefully—takes over.

I’m constantly wrestling with the question of whether or not a commitment to the gods is required in order to work effectively with the runes. For me, this is a constant back and forth, and increasingly I lean toward yes (at least, for myself). When I first was learning about the runes, it was casual and from the place of a non-practitioner. I was simply a witch curiously exploring systems outside of my own. But since I began using them seriously, I’ve built unanticipated religious and social connections within Heathen spaces. I talk to gods that I previously didn’t have relationships with. My attitudes about divination are different now. Runes exist in a completely different headspace from tarot. They’re magical and sacred in and of themselves, unlike tarot, whose power is consciously constructed.

I realize that’s magical thinking all on its own, but there it is.

It’s challenging moving between the two over the course of a day’s work, like stepping back and forth into different social roles. I love both, but differently.  Tarot stimulates my intellect and fuels my love for history.  Runes are about my connection to the gods.

For those of you who practice other forms of divination, do you find that your approaches are markedly different?

Collecting Tarot Decks

photo-4I really couldn’t tell you at what point I crossed the line from “practical tarot-loving person with reasonably-sized stack of different decks on a shelf” and stumbled into the craziness that is tarot collecting. Probably about the same time that I discovered my old Röhrig Tarot (one of my first decks) was going for stupid amounts of money on Ebay (think upwards of $300), or else when I decided I simply HAD TO HAVE the then out-of-print Chinese Tarot and was infuriated to find that it couldn’t be obtained (used, even) for less than $80 (BLARG).

I’ve always been a little bit of a packrat (well, maybe more like a food-aggressive dog that isn’t convinced there’s a next meal coming). I have several collections of various and sundry magical items: periodicals, wands, skulls, My Little Pony™ blind bag figures. A tarot deck collection was part of a natural progression, especially after I started reading professionally and writing a lot about tarot.

Aside from just loving tarot and wanting lots of it around all the time, I wanted to have lots of examples to show off as needed in the tarot classes that I teach. I wanted to be able to quickly take original photos for articles. I wanted to be able to produce decks that demonstrate a progression in tarot history, much in the same way that any scholar can reference published works over a span of time. Having immediate access to these materials facilitates writing, research, the synthesis of original ideas, and teaching.

Collectors usually have the specific m.o. of choosing and hoarding decks according to projections about future value. The point is preservation, resale, or some further strategy that doesn’t include regular use (which devalues the cards in the same way that writing margin notes devalues a book). Making projections about future value is part of what’s fun about collecting (it’s basically gambling, except you can’t lose out entirely). There’s also the thrill of hunting down and then acquiring something scarce.

Because there are so many available decks at any one time and limited funding for building a collection, it helps to have parameters. These will vary from collector to collector according to taste. Some of mine are as follows:

1) I prefer self-published or otherwise unique decks. First of all, after years of reading cards, mass-produced decks start to look the same (especially from companies like Llewellyn and Lo Scarabeo). Self-produced decks are just more interesting. Second, they almost always appear in limited runs, which means that they’re more likely to accrue monetary value over time. As examples, consider the Collective Tarot and the Light Visions Tarot (PS, if any of my readers has either and would care to part with it, shoot me a message). Small batch decks have a tendency to appear and disappear before earning massive online interesting, so it helps to continually monitor sites like Kickstarter and Etsy for upcoming projects. Where possible, preorder.

2) I prefer decks that are just fucking weird. These may never be valuable (though sometimes are), but they often elicit cult-type followings and always make personal collections more interesting. Weirdness might include odd structures that deviate from usual tarot models, unusual themes (consider the Insane Clown Posse-themed Dark Carnival deck, which, hilariously, includes “juggalos” in its list of production materials), or particularly terrible (sometime great, but usually terrible) art. The weirder, the better, as far as I’m concerned.

3) I love historical reproductions. I’m a major nerd for tarot history, so any time I can get my hands on a quality reproduction (or the real deal) of a historically significant deck, I’m there. For me, these are perfect teaching tools, and just uniquely gratifying to own. Consider this limited release in the Marseille tradition.

Your own collection could be based on any individual standard or interest. Some people really love animal-themed decks, or collect decks from specific publishing houses.

Additional tips for building or maintaining a collection include the following:

1) Buy two copies. One to open and play with, the other to keep sealed and then sell when the value appreciates. If you wait until the deck has doubled in value, you essentially break even and, if you’re smart and careful, you can collect for profit. As a rule, when a deck reaches twice its original sale value, it’s time to sell.

2) Avoid handling, humidity, and basically anything that can damage paper. Decks are most valuable the closer they are to mint condition. Just letting paper products sit around unattended can cause them to devalue (ever smelled a musty book?). It’s important to control climate and handling wherever possible. Shuffling cards, oils from fingers and hands, and surface scratches from sliding a card on a hard surface can all cause depreciation and make a deck harder to sell.

3) Keep abreast of upcoming reprints. When a deck is rereleased (which just happened with that Chinese Tarot I mentioned earlier, and is typical of companies like Lo Scarabeo and U.S. Games), its value usually drops significantly. Deck values fluctuate, often in relation to how prominent a deck is in popular conversation.

4) Keep the box in good shape. If it’s a deck you’re going to use regularly, it can still pay to keep the box separately and in clean condition. The packaging is part of the deck, as far as a collector is concerned.

5) Maintain a network of fellow readers and collectors. Sometimes you’ll have good trading opportunities or else people who can keep an eye out for decks you’re looking for.

These Oracle Cards are Ruining My Snobbery

photo-4So oracle decks fuck with me on a couple of levels.

I’d never had any interest in them. In the realm of cartomancy, tarot is my reigning mistress, with a bit of Lenormand on the side just for variety. The history, the blending together of fascinating magical systems, the provocative artwork…

Oracle cards seem to be mostly devoid of all of the things that make me love tarot. Aside from all of the pastel airbrushing and sparkly foil borders, oracle decks seem to necessarily rely on intuition, impulse, and feelings. “I feel that this card is saying…” as opposed to “this card traditionally means…” With oracle cards, there’s usually not a lot outside of the deck itself to turn to for information. We’re left with our guts (and not in a fun, haruspicy sort of way).

This works for plenty of readers, and it’s certainly an effective way to divine. But it’s never been my preferred style. If I want to practice divination that relies primarily on my woo (a term I use with reverence and which encompasses my witchcraft, my relationships with my gods, and anything we might call “psychic” abilities), I have other preferred methods. Oracle cards have always struck me as super New-Agey, with their cutesy artwork (or Sports-Illustrated-swimsuit-issue portrayals of goddesses), feel-good messages, and plethora of writers with fake PhDs.

But! But! I’m having to throw out my previously established negativity when confronted with Stacey Demarco’s Halloween Oracle. Which I can’t stop handling. The artwork is gorgeous, the book is full of fun Halloween factoids, and even the print job is solid. So what the hell do I do with myself now?

I don’t really know yet. I’m screwing around with a totally different way of reading cards, trying to come up with spreads that make sense to me, and challenging my tendency to rely on external sources for information. It’s fucking with me. But in a good way.

I’ll write more about all this as things progress, and maybe persuade some of my regular clients to allow me to experiment on them.

I will say that, in my cursory reappraisal of oracle decks as a thing, I’ve continued to be disappointed (so many decks are just…gross), but the Halloween Oracle gives me some hope.