She Taught Me To Read Tarot Cards Long Before They Were Cool

Her fingerprints are part of my story.

Woman teaching how to read tarot cards alvarostock | Canva

She taught me to read tarot cards long before they were cool. I’m not one of those annoying know-it-alls who can’t wait to explain how they liked this band or that fashion before it was cool. I once worked with a guy who stood behind me and said, apropos of nothing, “I liked Sriracha before everyone else,” as I squirted the hot sauce on my reheated leftovers in the kitchen.

I want to point out too  —  for posterity  —  that he also used to wear his long, greasy hair in a bun around the office. He was a lawyer. In-house. So, let me be clear: I am not this type of person. I’m not fashionable, ahead of the curve, and even if I was, I wouldn’t be annoying about it. But I feel like I have a right to be a little smug about this one thing I was truly into before it became popular.


And tarot cards are popular. They are, in fact, a full-blown wellness trend. There are millions of posts about tarot cards on Instagram, and if you’re interested, popular lifestyle sites are eager to sell $60 decks. But don’t buy a $60 deck.

There are countless theories about why so many people are currently seeking metaphysical answers to Earthly questions. Long story short: if you think the world is ending, why not? I am no expert on social trends but have my answers. When life is stressful, or I feel a little lost, I read my tarot cards. The ritual itself forces me to slow down and concentrate on my thoughts.


Tarot card reading Shyntartanya / Shutterstock

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I am not superstitious. I do not believe in evil spirits (unless we’re talking tequila). I read my cards, and they read me. I read my cards this past weekend. I’ve been feeling unmotivated, so I drew three cards: The Prince of Swords, the Nine of Cups, and the Fool. Then I sighed because the cards were spot on. I will get back to that in a moment.


I have been reading my tarot cards for over 20 years. This is not something I usually bring up in mixed company. “Hey, dude, how are you?” “Good, good. Just pulled a Five of Wands card, so I’m having to think real hard about the conflicts in my life and whether or not any are easily avoidable, bro.”

A therapist once asked me if I had a mindfulness practice — we had been talking about meditation and prayer. I joked that I read tarot cards because they didn’t require health insurance, which caused him to inhale sharply and then ask, “Do you believe in magic?” "No," I responded, "I don’t believe in magic. I’m not Dr. Strange." (I mean, I love capes.) Then he told me my time was up, and I cut him a check for $150. But I do believe in taking twenty minutes out of my day, shuffling 78 colorful cards, dealing out three, five, or 12, and trying to make sense of each card’s pictures, symbols, and words.

The cards don’t tell the future. Anyone who says otherwise is a fraud. Fortune tellers are fun, but I wouldn’t make any important life choices based on what they say. Pick your lottery numbers, you know?

The future depends largely on the decisions you make and the decisions the universe makes for you. What Tarot cards help me do is meditate on the former. The world is stressful — and beautiful, and scary, and unknowable — and I have very little control over my fortunes. So, I don’t think it hurts to steal a little time from my overstuffed day to check in on myself, even if it means playing a card game that helps me focus on who I am and could be.


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I use the same deck given to me by the woman who taught me how to read them. Her name was Linda. She was a writer, an actor, and a scholar. Her hair was short and silver. She was not a witch. Linda was an Englishwoman many decades my senior who I had befriended in college. A grad student. She adopted strays. Her apartment was a cozy mess of books — as if an ancient library had erupted through the hardwood floors and grown wild. We would talk about philosophy and politics, her girlfriends and mine. Then she’d light incense, and we’d sit on pillows and read tarot. Maybe we’d listen to Tori Amos because, you know, it was the ‘90s.

“The cards are just cards,” she’d say with a wink. “But let’s see what they say anyway.”

She taught me that I am a living story. A love story. Underdog story. Success story. A comedy, a tragedy, a melodrama. In my life, I will overcome monsters and be reborn multiple times. My heart will break. My heart will bloom. My heart will glow like lava and then cool. I will stumble in the dark and fall to my knees before the light. I am a skeleton wearing a coat of many myths. That’s why humans watch movies, read books, and listen to music. It’s why we try to spook each other around the campfire. We hunger for the stuff we’re made from.


Linda told me to think of these cards as both lanterns and mirrors: torches that illuminate dark passages and looking glasses that reflect different versions of what they are shown. Each tarot card tells a story. For the duration of a reading, they are telling my story. The 22-major arcana, or trump cards, feature characters like The Lovers or The Hermit, each one symbolizing a deeply human idea or emotion. Fear, lust, joy, hope. The remaining cards are divided into four suits, each with four court cards, much like our modern playing cards. The cards can shake loose old memories, open up potential new directions, or show what can happen if we take mental sledgehammers to walls.

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Modern life doesn’t allow much room for personal make-pretend. There’s too much to do. Too many screens to scroll, too many anxieties to ignore. We rarely give ourselves the gift of wondering where we came from, where we are, and where we would like to go.

The origins of tarot are clouded by history, but many experts agree that they first appeared in 15th-century Italy. She had all kinds of decks from different eras. Each came with a history lesson. Interest in tarot cards and occultism bloomed in 19th-century Victorian England — an era of incredible socio-economic upheaval — especially among the upper class. Famous writers like Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Conan Arthur Doyle, and poet W.B. Yeats were obsessed with the supernatural. 


The deck I use was designed by Aleister Crowley, a late 19th-century mystic famous for his knowledge of arcana … and wild hedonism. He was brilliant and a total creep, a self-described drug fiend and sex magick practitioner. His deck is full of icons and archetypes from throughout human civilization. Crowley’s work was Jungian in a sense; each card connected to the collective unconscious.

Explaining the history of tarot always made my therapist roll his eyes.

As I mentioned, I dealt three tarot cards the other day, as I have done from time to time throughout my adulthood. I chose a simple three-card arrangement. The first card helps me rethink the past; the second, the present. The future is third. There are other ways to deal with your cards, but this is a simple and fast one. I also put on some Tori Amos. Little Earthquakes.


Linda would be pleased that I have continued to read my tarot cards. She was the first person to use my deck. She pulled off the shrink wrap. The cards are frayed at the edges and slightly bent now, but twenty years ago, they were fresh and new. Her fingerprints are part of my story. She passed on many years ago, and I miss her lectures on art and history as the kettle whistled.

The first card: The Prince of Swords can represent a smart, if impulsive, man. He is often full of great ideas but doesn’t follow through on them. This could be a person I know or even me. I have been dragging my feet on projects, including taking better care of myself. The Nine of Cups can signal well-deserved happiness and success. This card represents a potential future where my wishes come true — but only if I do the work. The future is not set. So make wise choices.

The middle card that represents the here and now is The Fool. Linda adored this card. The Fool is, traditionally, a blindfolded man taking a step off a cliff. The Fool card is a card about wisdom and self-knowledge. The Fool trusts himself. He is courageous and is not afraid of the future. He leaps before he looks. This is a bad idea when you’re standing at an actual cliff, but it is pretty good advice when it comes to living the best life you can live. The Fool jumps and laughs all the way down because fools have faith in love. The cards are just cards. But that’s not bad advice.


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John DeVore is a two-time James Beard award-winning writer and editor. He's written for Esquire, Food and Wine, and Vanity Fair, to name a few. His debut memoir, Theatre Kids, is now available for preorder.