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.

Off the Rails

IMG_6044
In the spirit of random dumping, here’s a picture of Oliver with a bow.

One of my first degrees, Lore, tells me that I should just take Oathbound completely off the rails sometime, just for the hell of it.  “Just post grocery lists.  Or rant about a bad date.  Or make up some kind of witch trend and see how many people you can get on board,” and she laughed sort of maniacally.  She’s got a taste for the weird, and she loves it when people get strange just because.

Blogging has come to be its own genre, with its own formulas, and it gets a little confining sometimes.  I love it, really (and I’m not going to fuck with Oathbound, although I can hear Jason Mankey — hi Jason! You’re awesome! — saying, “But you CAN write about other things!”), but I think Lore has a point about blowing off some writing steam.  I need to work up to doing it on such a large platform, though.  I know my Patheos friends would welcome other kinds of material, but there’s definitely a particular voice and a particular style that dominates.  I think I’ll just have to sort of mentally work up to putting the off-the-cuff stuff there.

Honestly, when I get home from work, I just don’t really have the energy for much.

I work at an impoverished urban school with a student body that’s more than 95% African-American and Hispanic.  Our kids are several years behind in terms of performance, and it’s my job to teach them to read at grade level.  This task, by the way, is literally impossible given the total lack of support from our district and the State as a whole.  Without educational resources, parental support, or even a safe place to do their homework (many of our children are homeless or live in volatile foster situations), it just isn’t going to happen.  A lot of kids are migratory.  Many don’t speak any English.  We do our best and try to at least be a source of positivity for these kids, but the situation is dire any way you look at it.  And the educational gap is getting bigger every year.  Our children are also routinely involved in neighborhood violence.  Police are everywhere all the time.  The school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing for these kids, and it’s a daily heartbreak.  And that’s without even getting to the absurdity that is teacher education, pay, and retention.  It’s amazing to me that more people–people with children, especially–aren’t angry about public education.  It’s like no one cares.  Or they only care insofar as they don’t actually have to do any work to change anything.

So I don’t really care about Pagan drama when I get home from work.  It’s just not relevant to, dare I say, “real life” most of the time.  It’s a Maslow’s Hierarchy thing.  I like to engage with categories within Paganism, authenticity, history.  It’s intellectually stimulating and personally challenging.  I love the conversations we have, and the opportunities to learn.  But if I’m going to get angry about something at the end of the day, it’s never going to be over who’s a real witch, or whether or not someone’s god is being defamed on the Internet, or what Christians think about Satan.  It’s never going to be over whether or not Pagans can be atheists, or what the gods are really like.

Interesting, sure, sometimes.  But other things are more pressing.  And I’m tired.

I’m also a little voyeuristic.  I want to hear about what people’s personal lives are like.  One of the things I loved about Livejournal a hundred years ago was watching total strangers (with common interests) freak out about the same stuff I was freaking out about, other places in the world.  Dating, family drama, having kids, problems at school or work, wanting to try something cool they read about in their newest witchcraft book, being nervous because they were going to a new community for a ritual, pissed off ranting about people I’ll never meet, lamenting that no one understands.  It was gold.  It made everyone — no matter their religion, their subculture, their kink, their trauma, their whatever — look totally human.  Learning from each other happened naturally, and everyone seemed to feel less alone.

I have narratives in my head about some of the other Patheos bloggers I’ve never met in real life (actually, all of the bloggers I follow, on whatever platform), especially the ones who barely write about their personal lives.  It’s like fanfic.  Our blogs make us look so polished and together most of the time.  I like to imagine what the freakouts might look like.  My freakouts and fuckups have been pretty spectacular in the past.  All of those blogs about finding a good coven, building community, and whatever have all come from real life experiences.  Most have been super messy.  Maybe someday when I’m drunk I’ll write more about that.

Right now I have to finish this moronic assignment for my teaching program.  Then I have to go to the grocery store because I’m out of basically everything except for cat food, which helps no one but Oliver.

I also need salt, tuna, granola bars and snacks to take to work, some sort of fruit so I don’t get scurvy, and maybe something to eat for dinner that doesn’t involve pouring milk over a bowl of cereal.  Which I’m also out of.

 

Ah, fall.

photo-4Well, autumn is almost over and you haven’t heard much from me these past few months. I knew this season would be rough, and I’m grateful to see it come to a close. I’ve been teaching at the university, teaching at the elementary school, taking my own classes (finishing up the teaching license), teaching the periodic class at Laughingbrook, preparing for the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting, conducting tarot readings, writing for Patheos, running a coven, writing and performing a wedding (in another state!), serving on the board of my archery club, and trying to remember to feed Oliver periodically. Many, many things have sadly fallen by the wayside, and I’m afraid the tarot blogging was one of them.

But not to fear! I’m still carrying on with the meat of the thing. The shop is still open for readings, I still teach tarot locally, and I’m still plodding through my own tarot studies, if at a much slower pace than I’d prefer (seriously, I’ve been on this Qabalah project for almost a year). I’ve also got about a half dozen amazing decks that I want to showcase here (The Ghetto Tarot! COSMOS Tarot and Oracle! Plus some upcoming Kickstarters that I’m ridiculously excited about). I wish I had more time, but lately I just don’t (though I promise I’ll get to those showcase posts, even if it’s just pictures).

It’s discouraging having to pick and choose what to practice (I use that word consciously and broadly…everything we seek to improve upon requires “practice”). I love doing a lot of things, and it’s oftentimes frustrating to feel like I don’t have one niche the way other people seem to. In order to really excel at anything, you have to practice consistently, whether that means playing your instrument every day, regular target practice, consistently writing, or devoting your focused energies to building a business. But if I played guitar, shot my bow, threw my axe, ran, wrote, and studied tarot every day, I wouldn’t have time left to go to work, see my friends, or run my coven. Oliver would never have anyone to play with him. Chaos would ensue.

I’ve met people who are geniuses. I went to music school with one kid whose ear was downright scary. I know people with IQs that make me look like I’ve suffered a recent head injury. I’ve got a covenmate who makes every piece of art I’ve ever created look like drunken fingerpainting at one of those wine-and-paint chains. I know incredible athletes whose every movement makes me feel like I’m back in middle school gym, losing at dodgeball.

I’m not a genius, not a master.

I’m a Jack-of-all-trades, and I think that’s okay.

Originally—so I’ve read and choose to believe—the term wasn’t derogatory. In some instances, the full phrase is actually, “Jack of all trades, master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one,” and that’s my favorite version.

What looks like fickleness or lacking commitment is actually versatility, so long as I’m still improving and still being mindful when I do practice. I’ll never be a rock star, a champion archer, or someone who can make her entire living working with tarot, but I can be constantly improving and achieving satisfaction through doing what I can do and doing it well.

Tarot is one of those things that’s been with me for years and years, and I know it always will be. I can build slowly, improve on things one by one, and I’ll still see results down the road. There’s no need to beat myself up for not having time to read every book, or not having the cash or energy to take every class.

I think it also makes performing readings more special for me. Burn out is a real thing, it turns out, and when I cut myself some slack I find that my output is of a higher quality.

So I’m still around and you’ll still hear from me here! I’ve got lots in the works and plenty of big plans for the future. But I’m not going to stress over it. In the meantime, you can still visit me on Facebook (and like my page!), read my thoughts on witchcraft over at Patheos, and follow me on Twitter.

Life After Teen Witch: An Introduction

photo-4I’m going to avoid double-posting blog posts for the sake of preventing monotony, but I did want to let everyone know that I just posted my first blog over at Patheos.  Go read it and share it on your assorted social media platforms and I’ll love you even more than I already do:

Go here!

You can also give me a follow over there (and like me on Facebook) so you don’t miss the excitement.  Hooray!

Tarot and Qabalah: What even is that.

e8b04a6b-c151-4305-b411-1843a680b9d3Until only a few years ago, pretty much everything I knew about Qabalah (QKC?ab(b)alah?) came through what I saw Madonna and Britney Spears do in Us Weekly.  I remember watching The Craft in the mid-nineties and seeing Nancy reading a book about Qabalah and thinking, “Why the hell would a witch want to read about that?”  I was both mystified and smug.

It wasn’t until I began seriously studying tarot that I started being able to orient myself.  For those of you who may be just as lost, I’m posting the following, which appeared in the February Tarot Skeptic Newsletter (which you should subscribe to if you enjoy this sort of thing!):

In the simplest terms possible, Qabalah is a Jewish mystical system that describes the creation of the world, our relationship to God, and the means by which we may achieve a kind of union with God.  The Tree of Life—the symbol that we usually see used in reference to Qabalah—is essentially a map of creation.  The word itself means receiving or received and there is an ecstatic element to the tradition (which is at least part of the reason why it’s so hard to understand through simply reading a book or two).  The roots of Qabalah are thousands of years old, but increased interest developed in Middle Ages.

So what about tarot?

Part of the problem with learning Qabalah in the context of tarot is that there are so many myths floating around (my personal favorite being that tarot comes out of Qabalah and was used to preserve Jewish tradition in the face of oppression).  Where to even begin?

First, understand that the connection between tarot and Qabalah was created within a particular timeframe (rather than over the course of a sweeping, expansive history).  Interest in Jewish mystical tradition had been growing since the 12thcentury, but it really wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th century European occult movements that Qabalah became intimately linked with the tarot, and specifically through the work of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

It was Éliphas Lévi (1810-1875) who was largely responsible for the association of tarot with esotericism and especially Qabalah.  Lévi was invested in combining a variety of occult traditions into one coherent system, believing that each conveyed some piece of a universal wisdom.  Later, the magicians of the Golden Dawn would build upon (and at times conflict with) Lévi’s work, building new associations between the tarot trumps and the Hebrew letters.  S.L. MacGregor Mathers (1854-1918) assigned divinatory meanings to the cards according to their locations (also assigned) on the Tree of Life, and a variety of interpretations arose with the further development and spread of Golden Dawn materials.

All of this may have nothing to do with you and your practice of tarot, and that’s perfectly fair.  I see Hermetic Qabalah (because it’s important to distinguish between the modern, esoteric traditions of Western Europe and ancient Jewish tradition) as one more source of information and insight in understanding and interpreting the cards.  And I want as many tools as possible in my tarot arsenal.

For additional reading, it’s worth checking out Robert Wang’s The Qabalistic Tarot: A Textbook of Mystical Philosophy.  I also enjoyed Rachel Pollock’s The Kabbalah Tree: A Journey of Balance & Growth.  Both books are specifically about the Qabalah’s connection to tarot and are among the more accessible books I’ve found.  I’d also recommend the Qabalah audio course available from Tarot School, which was enormously helpful as I began to tackle such a heady subject. (Yeah, it’s expensive, but you don’t have to pay full price.  Sign up for the Tarot Tips newsletter.  Discount codes and sales are regularly announced over the course of the year.)

Sidenote: Confused about spelling?  Because Hebrew doesn’t transliterate precisely into English, multiple spellings of “Qabalah” exist.  A convention has developed in which the choice of spelling reflects context, with “Kabbalah” referring to the original Jewish tradition, “Cabalah” for the various Christian interpretations that exist, and “Qabalah” for those of us coming from a Hermetic background (i.e. us tarot folk).  Obviously, with some variation.

Importing from Blogger and rambling about YouTube.

I just finished importing content from my old Blogger, which, it turns out, is a quick and painless (if somewhat mystifying) process.  Behold!  My feeling from years past!

I’m often told by friends that I need to post more.  I also get a steady stream of comments from YouTube folks asking, “Are you ever going to make more videos?”  The truth is that I rarely feel that I get enough out of things like this to warrant doing it.  I initially joined YouTube because I wanted to interact with some of the people posting videos there, but found that real interaction was minimal (with some notable exceptions).  I wanted to engage in conversation, but most of the people commenting on videos and sending me messages were new folks looking for advice (which is great, but I’m not personally interested in teaching anyone).  I found that there wasn’t a lot of reciprocity.  People only occasionally offered thoughtful, conflicting opinions or engaged me in useful ways.  Overwhelmingly, I’ve found YouTube to be less about community and more about an exchange between teachers (more or less qualified) and faceless, virtual students.  I can hardly stand it when I’ve got a classroom of them staring at me.

Which of course begs the question, “How is a blog any different?”  Well, it’s not.  At least, not that I’ve seen so far.  Actually, I take that back.  There is one key difference that’s immediately apparent to me: Comments are fewer, but generally of much higher quality.  I think because blogs are less visually stimulating and require a lot of quick reading, they have a more narrow appeal.  I don’t say this to be elitist (having spent absurd amounts of time on things like YouTube and Tumblr and Instagram), but I do think text-heavy blogs are less accessible.  It takes more effort (even if it’s just marginal) to process material and then to craft a reply.

Mostly, I just prefer writing to making videos.  The biggest hang-up for me where this is concerned, however, is that I tell myself, “This should be going in your journal.  Why are you making this pubic?  This is narcissism.”  Well, yes, to a degree I suppose it is.  But maybe at the least it gives my friends an additional window into what’s on my mind.  And maybe people find me interesting in the way that I find other people interesting.  I’d much rather read a blog about someone’s day-to-day thoughts and goings on rather than long entries about, “THIS IS WHAT AN ATHAME IS FOR.”  But , again, that’s because I’m not interested in teaching (which is hilarious given both my profession and recent decision regarding Outer Court).

Building Community

I’ve been away doing all manner of things.  The fall was largely about making decisions regarding my academic future (and then changing those decisions come spring), traveling, lecturing, grading (and subsequently being disillusioned by) undergrads, and making new friends and contacts.  I scored a mention from Jason Pitzl-Waters at The Wild Hunt after he saw me present at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in Chicago.  Morgan and I came and saw and conquered and hung out with Chas Clifton and Chas Clifton’s glorious hat.  Good times were had,IMG_1427 IMG_1428and we even enjoyed the added benefit of visiting with Craft siblings and cousins while there.  We went to some very impressive used book stores and some very underwhelming occult shops.  Books were had in piles and all was once again right with the world.

Now I’m back to class and my T.A. work and my Craft obligations, and still figuring out where to go from here.  What does seem sure is that I’m remaining in North Carolina indefinitely.  Roots are down, like it or no, and thankfully I’ve found a solid circle of friends here.  Ali remains the locus of the open Pagan community here in Charlotte, and I’ll be hanging my own Gardnerian shingle out soon, too, it turns out.  She continues to be the most perfect friend I could possibly have made since stumbling into this town, and I know she’ll be an important resource as I begin to build another kind of community here.

Speaking of my perfect friends, Kim and I are gearing up for festival season (with Ali, too!) and I’m off to New Jersey in a couple of days to visit a new friend acquired through, of all places, Instagram.  He’s probably not an ax murderer.  But just in case, Ali, I need you to get into my house after I’m dead and remove all of the journals and Books of Shadows before my mother arrives.  Get them to Morgan.  Morgan, you and Chad can split up the occult books (I assume Ali will have already raided what she wanted).  Give Holly and Bob my tools.  Give Oliver to Monty.

I’m kidding, of course.  Louie and I will be sussing out witchcraft in New York City and laying around talking about Aleister Crowley over wine and absurd amounts of cheese.  Check Instagram for pictures of the mayhem!