How I Started with Tarot

Spring, 1971, senior year of high school. I went into a head shop called The Leatherhead. I was there to buy a pipe or papers. They had the RWS deck and Waite’s “Illustrated Tarot” and I bought them. I knew about Crowley and all that stuff from my own studies. The next book I got at about the same time was Rachel Pollock’s “78 Degrees of Wisdom.” I was hooked.

I was 1-A for Vietnam that year. I got lucky. I drew 333 and they only took people up to 188 that year. It was an absolute liminal state. You lived with death at any moment. I resolved that I would go if I was called. I didn’t want to become a criminal. I knew a lot of people who didn’t come back and more that came back hopelessly fucked up. The roll of the die. But anyhow, that’s the spiritual context of my tarot.

I had been reading a lot of heavy stuff for a young person before I first picked up a deck of tarot cards. I read the Beat poets, Ginsberg and Kerouac, Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley. Then from my dad I got Plato, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer and Tillich. And of course, I read The Lord of the Rings, Dune, all of Heinlein, Asimov and more. I was reading occult literature like Eliphas Levi, Madame Blavatsky, “The Malleus Malificarum” and more. So, when I got my hands on a deck of tarot cards they were like bottled lightning. I opened the bottle.

The cards immediately spoke to me. Before I even learned the meanings of the cards, I could see stories. I learned the Celtic Cross and started reading for people. That fall I was in my freshman year in college and I read cards in the dorm. I actually had one guy run from my room because a spread hit him so hard. I was a quick study, especially at 19 at the peak of my brain power, and I learned the basics quickly.

Conceptually, the thing which captured my imagination with the tarot was the idea of the zero card, The Fool. Intuitively, I knew that this was the master key to the whole system. It was perfectly Zen. It was perfectly existentialist. It was spiritual and mystical. It was non-rational. I saw myself as The Fool and internalized his message: no-mind, soul freedom, the emptiness.

During that time I discovered Carl Jung. Jung’s ideas of the collective unconscious, the archetypes, synchronicity, shadow, anima and the journey toward wholeness totally clicked in my mind as a conceptual and non-mythological framework for understanding the tarot.

That was fifty years ago. Today, I pull a “card of the day” every morning and put it on Twitter. It’s fun. I’m thankful that my imagination found this path.

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