Learning to Read Tarot Totally Transformed How I Approach Self-Care

by Natalie Kiser

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I spent the earlier parts of my life decidedly in the “skeptic” column when it came to astrology, crystals and all things woo-woo. I got the appeal and the aesthetic, of course, but hadn’t really been interested beyond half-listening to friends expound the virtues of Rose Quartz or Carnelian. Having parted ways with the religion I’d been raised in, I found it challenging to get in touch with spirituality and feel nourished by it in the same way.

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Then I found myself at one of those less-than-fun crossroads moment between family stress, a major depressive episode and the slow painful death of a longterm friendship. Around that time, I got my first two decks of tarot cards for the holidays from two close friends: a classic Rider Waite deck and a Slow Holler deck (with art drawn by queer southern artists) and started to slowly find comfort in learning each card’s story, seeing how they interact with one another and, mostly, by talking myself through all the stories that had been taking up stressful space in my head.

For me, a tarot reading is about interpreting those stories: the ones we tell ourselves (about ourselves, our lives, other people’s lives) and considering the different impulses, instincts and baggage that can help or hurt us in reaching a goal. How are you feeling? What’s blocking you from being who, where and how you need to be?

For a crash course, tarot decks come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and themes and have been used in divination and for party games dating back centuries. Most decks that I work with operate with the major and minor arcana — the major are 22 of the large archetypal themes ranging from the fool (or the fledgling — the baby and the beginning!) to the world (the ending of a cycle of life, coming home, finding completion) and each step in between. These, when paired with the minor arcana (the suits representing each element (cups: water, wands: fire, earth: pentacles, swords: air) and the different numbers attached to them, can help tell the story of where you are on an individual journey and the things you may or may not be doing to help yourself get to the place you need to be.

When it comes to self-care — which is such a broad, complicated almost nothing-term these days that is applied as freely to expensive face masks as it is doing the dishes and meditating — tarot has been a useful way to give a sense of ritual to self-reflection.

Without falling into self-indulgent navel-gazing, it’s a way to decisively sit down and dedicate a space — physical and mental —  to checking in with an often frenetic inner dialogue. This is harder to do than you’d think. While we’d all love to be our best selves 24/7 who can make time to wake up early, feed ourselves and our families (or critters), do some yoga and calmly start our days, most of us are pressed to find the time to splash water on our face and breathe between emails, chores and loved ones who need our attention.

But since I started to understand and appreciate tarot, I’ve found that I can give myself a short but powerful pocket of time that is purely dedicated to being emotionally and intellectually present with myself (or the people I’m reading for). When I feel overwhelmed with work, stressed about a frustrating interaction with a loved one or feel emotionally misunderstood by partner(s) or friends, sometimes just the act of deciding to pull a few cards and see what they have to tell me can help sort my mind. It helps honor that all of these quieter, inner moments — as well as the bigger outer ones — are worthy of taking up space.

There’s 78 cards total and countless combinations they can appear in during a reading depending on the spread and the end-goal. But, what’s cool about tarot and the archetypal all-too-human stories they tap in to is that each one and each stage of life will resonate in some way with everyone at some point. We all love, we all navigate complicated feelings and have to reckon with the friction of our inner and outer worlds. Sometimes we just need a guide, something to point us in the right direction and  cut through the noise.

As I started reading cards more confidently as time has gone on, one of my favorite things to do is end up at some okay-ish dive bar with a pile of my friends and during a lull in conversation whip out my favorite tarot deck for a reading or two. Depending on the crowd I’m with I’ll get some excited “hell yeahs” or some affectionate eye-rolls (which is fair!) and do a few readings — for the aforementioned friends, the bartender, or (frequently) a select stranger who probably needs to break-up with someone/or just broke up with someone.

But one of the first things I do when I read tarot for someone new is tell them that, for the most part, “I’m not going to tell you anything you don’t already know.”

Because the ultimate way these cards have helped me is by reminding me that the inner intuitive voice is always there — listening, reflecting and ready to be heard.

A version of this story was published May 2020.

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