This writeup is an attempt to describe what a tarot reading is like, using my own experience as a model. This tarot reading actually occurred in early 1998. I have highlighted the specific cards from the reading so that you can research and make your own interpretations, if you'd like.
Before the Reading: The High Priestess
I was perched in my usual spot, jammed up in a little nook forged between the foot of Sarah's bed and the bookshelf, bouncing a red rubber ball off of the far wall and catching it as it came back to me. She sat on her couch, reading Middlesex and occasionally glancing up at my worried face.
"I can see that something's bothering you," she says, spot on as usual. "What's wrong?"
I retrieved that terrible piece of paper from my front shirt pocket, unfolded it, and offered it to her. She reached over and was just able to pull it from my fingers. As her eyes scanned across the lines on the sheet, an understanding fluttered into them. "Another rejection," she said with a strong hint of finality.
Subtlety never was her strong suit, I thought to myself as I squeezed the ball in my hand.
She looked over at me. "I know very well you're a good writer. You've just got to give it time; it'll work out somehow," she said as she crumpled up the letter and tossed it back at me.
This crumpled little letter said otherwise, I thought to myself as I caught it. I had been working on the novel for a year and a half, and I had already sold a few short stories, so I expected that I would be able to sell it with reasonable ease. Eight months and fifteen rejection letters later, I was beginning to doubt all of it.
She watched me fidget for a bit, then she came up with a bizarre suggestion: "How about we get Hillary to read your fortune?"
Hillary was an extremely good-natured woman who lived next door to Sarah. Hillary also had a deep interest in astrology and the occult and was a practicing vegan, and she wasn't afraid to share her beliefs with anyone. I thought the whole bit was hogwash, but Hillary's kindness and enthusiasm made it hard to criticize her beliefs.
"Sure, why not?" I said, figuring that if nothing else, the reading would provide some amusement in a sad and slow afternoon, and so the two of us walked over to Hillary's place.
The faint smell of incense under the door and the sound of Nine Inch Nails softly throbbing in the background let us know that Hillary was indeed home, and with the first knock on the door, we could hear Hill shout, "Come on in, you two!"
That was another thing about Hillary that was rather unusual. She always seemed to have a sixth sense; she knew who was coming and when they would arrive even if they weren't invited. It was an almost creepy party trick that she'd often do; we would invite her to tell us who was coming next to the party, and she'd usually predict the person and the time of arrival almost to the second.
Her apartment was filled with candles and smelled strongly of the incense she was burning. Hillary stood in the kitchen, looking like a Stevie Nicks double as she prepared a large tray full of finger sandwiches. "I knew you guys would be coming over and I figured you'd be hungry, so I made enough for all of us."
I looked at Sarah, wincing already about the oncoming lecture on the nutritional value of hummus or some other such vegan ideals, but Sarah just smiled and took a sandwich. "Mmm... not bad! Could use some sausage, though," Sarah said to Hillary, expecting the usual response.
The usual response is what we got. Hillary curled up her nose and shouted "Swine is disgusting!" before realizing that, indeed, Sarah was just yanking her chain a bit. "At least I know you two eat something approaching healthy every once in a while," Hillary told us, obviously referring to her own vegetable culinary delights.
We munched on our cucumber and ... I haven't the foggiest idea of what else was on the sandwich, but it was actually rather tasty, and I told Hillary that. She seemed quite pleased with this, and when we were finished, she printed a copy of the recipe off of her computer for us.
As Hillary handed the recipe to me, I surprised her once again. "I was wondering if you'd do a tarot reading for me," I asked her.
She seemed completely shocked at the concept. "Are you sure?" she asked. "It doesn't really work unless you actually believe in what the cards tell you."
I hesitated for a moment, but then decided that in the end it didn't really matter. God chooses a lot of ways to speak to us; why not through a tarot deck? "I can do that," I said, causing Sarah's eyebrows to raise up in surprise.
The Reading: The Knight of Pentacles
Hillary seemed genuinely excited as she produced a tarot deck from her end table at the far end of her couch; she cleared off a space on her table and encouraged me to sit across from her as she shuffled the cards vigorously.
The Celtic Cross arrangement, Hillary explained, is the traditional method of laying out the tarot cards, and the one she preferred to use. That means that at the end of the reading, the cards would take on the form of a Celtic cross, rather than some of the other common layouts, such as the three fates or the twisting paths.
I nodded, not really understanding what she meant, just knowing that she was going to try to offer a glimpse into my future using this deck of cards she riffled through her hands.
"First," she said, "we have to select a signifcator." She took eighteen cards that she had set aside and laid them face up before me.
"Which do I choose?" I asked Hillary, and she smiled her sweet little smile.
"Just look at the pictures," she said, "and pick the card that looks the most like what you feel right now about your question."
I studied the eighteen images before me for a moment before pointing at one.
"Your significator is the queen of cups," Hillary announced as she collected the other seventeen cards and shuffled them into her deck. "She is the symbol of tranquility, spirituality, maturity, and grace. You must feel some deep confidence about the question you are about to ask, is that right?"
"I guess so. It seems like I have talents, I'm just not sure I'm using them correctly," I told Hillary, as she gazed right into my eyes.
Hillary shuffled her cards continuously, her hands almost a blur. "So, what is your question?" she asked me.
I felt both Sarah's and Hillary's eyes on me as I considered what to ask. I closed my eyes and said, "Will I ever get my novel published?"
I opened my eyes and found them engaged with Hillary's deep blue ones. "Let's find out," she said, as she placed the deck in front of me to cut. I cut it, and passed it back to her, and she turned over the top card.
"This covers him: The Star, inverted," she said as she placed the first card on the table. Hillary looked at me and said, "This card represents the atmosphere surrounding the central issue. Your inner confidence about your novel is covered in a lot of self-doubt right now, is it not? The inverted star indicates lost hopes, doubt and failure. I am going to guess that your novel has been rejected several times already and you're full of doubt about it?"
"That's pretty accurate," I admitted, and Hillary winked at me. I looked down at the upside-down image before me, of a man kneeling before a star in the sky, and I couldn't help but envision myself at church. Almost immediately, she turned over another card on top of the inverted star.
"This crosses him: Death, inverted," she said as she covered up the star with the image of the pale rider. "This card represents the obstacle blocking your way. Hmmm... death is a bad sign, but not particularly in this location, and his inversion makes it clear what is going on. Something in the past is keeping ahold of you, isn't it? You're resisting change in some fashion. Did someone important to you pass away, and you're trying to live up to the hopes that they had for you? Or, maybe, you're still sticking to the values of your home instead of striking out on your own?"
To a certain degree, Hillary was right on both counts, and as I looked at her my eyes told her that she was right. For those fleeting few seconds, I thought about my grandfather and how he had such high hopes for me, and how in so many ways I simply sought to make him proud, wherever he was now. He was the guiding force in my life, and maybe now it was time to see that in some ways my loving memory of him was a hindrance to where I wanted to go.
When I opened my eyes again, they were a bit moist, as lost as I was in thoughts about my grandfather. Hillary looked at me, right into my eyes, and said, "The pain is your obstacle. The memories can remain, but they should not bring you pain. They should bring you joy."
Her hands hovered above the next card for a moment, waiting for a sign from me. I nodded softly, and she turned the card over.
"This crowns him: the two of swords," Hillary pronounced as she turned over an image of a lady bearing a pair of blades. "This is the best you can achieve without changing your priorities, and that is focus. You need to turn away from your own foibles and just stay true to what you want to do. Don't worry about little things, just seek a clear mind and a clear heart."
For the first time, I was somewhat confused. "What does that mean?" I said with an odd look on my face.
"Well, my thought is that you need to be willing to move past a rejection, or even be willing to move past the concept of being a writer. Be open and willing to find what you should be, even if it's not what you believe in your heart that you want."
I suppose it made sense, but now I was impatient to see what else the cards had to say. Hillary quickly moved on to the next one.
"This is beneath him: The Fool, inverted," she said as she revealed the fourth card. "This card shows the foundation on which the situation is based, and this indicates an unhealthy obsession. You seem to be putting too much of yourself into your desire of having a book published, to the extent that you're alienating others."
"You do seem pretty obsessed," Sarah piped in, and I had to agree with her. My deep burning desire to have a book published had often overshadowed other things: my college coursework, maintaining a healthy relationship with my girlfriend, normal sleeping... at various times, I tossed them all out for the sake of writing. I nodded at Hillary, who seemed to be enjoying this reading immensely, and her hand slipped quickly off the top of the deck with another card in hand.
"This is behind him: ten of swords, inverted," Hillary announced as I looked down at another figure bearing blades. "This card represents a passing influence that you might be magnifying in importance. Hmmm... it usually indicates a great gain through a great sacrifice. Do you believe that you somehow have to suffer before you can get this novel published?"
Most of my heroes were the novelists of the early 20th century, people like James Joyce and William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf, people plagued by their inner demons. On some level, I always believed that to truly succeed as a writer, you have to understand the pain within the individual, the internal torment that drives us to do the things that we do.
"Yes," I told her, almost sheepishly.
"Don't. It's not worth it. You'll succeed on your own merits; don't torture yourself," she said to me as she fingered the next card in the deck, and with a flick of the wrist, she produced it.
"This is before him: the page of cups," she said, showing a young boy holding a cup in his hand. "The page represents an approaching influence, and the influence he represents is that of an unexpected new relationship or a series of new ideas. It may be that your truly great ideas are yet to come," she said to me with a smile.
I looked down, and wished that I could believe that. I felt, at that very moment, as though I had dumped all of my worth into this novel that was being repeatedly rejected. Hillary sensed my moment of introspection and waited until my eyes met hers again before fingering the top of the deck.
"Ready?" she asked, and with a gentle nod, I indicated that I was.
"This represents him: the Moon, inverted," Hillary pronounced. She looked at the card for a moment, almost surprised. "This is a very interesting reading," she finally said. "This card is to represent your role in all of this, and the card is very positive. It means that you're willing and able to overcome minor setbacks with clarity and peace. Quite good."
For the first time in this whole reading, a smile crossed my face and I looked over at Sarah. Through my layers of disbelief in the whole system, somehow I was trusting of Hillary and the way her fingers danced along the cards, and I awaited further revelations from her.
"This surrounds him: Justice," Hillary said as her eyes studied the newly unveiled card, picturing a beautiful woman holding scales in her right hand. "This card represents your environment and, well, it's pretty much in balance right now. You have good karma and," glancing at Sarah, "I have a guess as to where it comes from."
I glanced over at Sarah, who sat in the chair with a half grin on her face. "Cute, Hillary," she said, "now you'll have him thinking I'm his good luck charm or something."
"Oh, but you are," Hillary fires back at her as I sit there, watching two old friends toss gentle phrases back and forth at one another. Sarah just smiles and looks at me as I prepare to see what else will come from Hillary's fingers.
"This is hidden from him: the knight of cups," Hillary intoned, turning over the image of a man on a horse holding a cup. "This card represents what is still unknown to you, and the knight of cups is a forceful idealist, a Don Quixote if you will. Generally, this means that something you don't expect will become a great support to you in the future, but know that it is coming."
I pondered what that could be; nothing seemed too obvious at this point. Heather seemed quite anxious to turn over the next card and said, "This next card is the final one, indicating the overall outcome of the question. Are you ready?"
I nodded in apprehension as she turned over the card, then got a scowl on her face.
"This is the outcome: the nine of swords," she reported, her face obviously uncomfortable. "The nine of swords represents cruelty and, I hate to say this, but that's not a good sign for the book you're trying to publish. So many other signs indicate that you are headed down the correct path generally, however."
Hillary paused for a moment and looked at me. "Perhaps the cards are saying that you should become a writer, but that this novel isn't the one you should be focusing on."
I sat there, studying the cards before me, and in my heart of hearts, I knew she was right. I knew that if I gave things time to work themselves through and gave an honest effort once again, I would be able to publish in the future.
A Summary of the Reading
Significator: Queen of Cups
This covers him: The Star, inverted
This crosses him: Death, inverted
This crowns him: two of swords
This is beneath him: The Fool, inverted
This is behind him: ten of swords, inverted
This is before him: page of cups
This represents him: the Moon, inverted
This surrounds him: Justice
This is hidden from him: knight of cups
This is the outcome: the nine of swords
After The Reading: The King of Swords
We left Hillary's, and Sarah could tell that I was down. "Don't worry about it," she told me. "We both know you're a good writer, it's just that maybe this one isn't the book that will make it for you. It's up to you to make up your own mind about it, though."
Over the next several months, I became more and more despondent over this change in direction, but indeed what was predicted came to pass. I found great spiritual solace and I eventually realized that, indeed, the book I was trying to publish was far from the best of what I could produce.
What is a tarot reading, in the end, other than a clever visual metaphor for giving advice? In the hands of a good friend, this reading helped in a lot of ways to prepare me for a few tough choices, and it enabled me to be told some things I perhaps wouldn't have been willing to hear otherwise.