The Major Arcana for the Superstitious Atheist


When I was a child, I believed in God and Santa Claus and magic in about the same way. They were these amazing beings or energies that did stuff for you. When I moved towards atheism as a teenager, I didn’t revise my assumption of my own passivity—that stuff happened to me, I didn’t cause stuff—I just changed my idea about how or why stuff happens.

To state the obvious, I had a sheltered childhood.


I don’t actually remember where I bought my first tarot card deck. I feel like it must have been at one of those patchouli-scented shops down by the shore. I also feel like my best friends from high school should have been involved in this purchase, but they weren’t.

My friend Elizabeth went to a palm reader down at the beach (if you grew up on the East Coast and in the suburbs, all your interactions with weirdos happened at the beach). She was told that she would marry a rich older man. In her past lives, she was a Russian aristocrat and a slave. We sensed it was bullshit, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t believe it.


Wherever I got it, I bought my first tarot card deck because I was drawn to the art. The deck did brisk business among the precocious teenage girl set, I’m sure. It’s very medieval-looking and has some kind of fake gold plate action on most of the cards. At the time, I thought they were wonderfully detailed. Now, the images look cheesy and crude.


In college, I was trying to discover who I was. Because I didn’t know myself that well, you see. One of my roommates (with whom I had a…complicated relationship) showed me the personality profile from one of his mother’s astrology books, one that listed what type of person you were based on your exact birthday. He felt that it was very accurate—that I was secretive and troubled.

His mother had the same birthday as mine.


The tarot card deck spent years in a shoebox where I kept little trinkets that I didn’t want to display, but also couldn’t bear to throw away. Maybe I would bring it out every few years and take a look, do a quick reading, then toss it back in the box and ignore until the next time I cleaned out my closet.


When my relationship was ending, I found the box again. My career hit the rocks, and I found I was, in short, looking for answers.

Well, to be fair, I already had answers, I just didn’t like them. They were hard answers that would force me to leave the man I still loved, to quit the job I once cherished, and to face the insecurity of a new life. I clung to tarot cards and astrology as things that would show me how to navigate this strange new world when I couldn’t trust myself.


Susan Miller has been very clear that astrology is not fortune-telling: “I can tell you that it’s a good time to do this or that, but you have to do something to show the universe your intent. You have to supply the energy” [Rookie]. In other words, if it’s a “good love day” for you on the 12th, plan a date or at least get out of the house. Love isn’t going to knock on your door unless you invite it.


There is a comfort in knowing our lucky or unlucky times. Knowing that it’s Mercury Retrograde when two exes show up out of the blue, your computer crashes, and your bike gets stolen means that you aren’t a fuck up, it’s just that asshole Mercury trying to swim upstream. Of course, if those things happen and it’s not Mercury Retrograde, well, then you have to think about how you live your life.


I got through my rough times, but I still felt unmoored. I tried to meditate. I went on juice fasts. Hitchens help me, I even tried to pray. I read a book on creativity and started to give myself art therapy projects, and that helped. I felt my pulse slow even though I knew that each piece of art I produced would only be loved by me. One of my projects was to create a personal tarot deck.


The personal tarot is not based on the Major or Minor Arcana. It is broken up by natural things you love, people you love, art you love, etc. Although I suppose you could use them for a reading, I don’t understand how. Mostly, I shuffle through them and pick a card and recognize that that’s the energy I need for the day. Today is a Julia day. Or, drawing the Ocean card, I decide to walk down to the East River or watch Gidget.


I created this deck last New Year’s Eve. I wanted to be alone that night. I cooked a big pot of Goan Black-Eyed Peas and chilled a small bottle of champagne. I brought out big blank index cards and markers and got to work, furiously planning what I wanted in the deck and then figuring out to represent it. I finished, exhausted, a little after midnight.


As art, this deck is not pleasing. I flip through it and plan how I will improve it someday. The cards that represent the people I love only have their names at the top—it was too big a task to illustrate my loved ones that New Year’s and I thought I would go back to them, but I haven’t. The point of the deck, however, is not to be a work of art.

If there was a fire, I would grab my passport, my photo albums, and this deck of cards.


In her recent zine, my friend Erin mentioned “The Collective Tarot.” She wrote that they felt right to her. On Twitter, she announced that a third printing was on sale and, interested, I bought a deck. It arrived earlier this week.


As the title suggests, the Collective Tarot was created by a group of artists. Some of the images are particularly pleasing. Some are not. Frankly, some of them are scary and creepy to me, even if the meaning of the card is not.


The artists who created the Collective Tarot are clear about their politics, and renamed cards to avoid gender essentialism and patriarchal/authoritarian values. When humans are represented on the cards, there is a diversity of skin colors, body types, genders, relationships. They consider the tarot as a place of utopian imagining: “This collective visioning is the place of our creativity, which will expand our worlds to recognize the beauty that they already behold.”


I am not really prone to utopian dreams. The compliment I hold most dear is when a friend said that she respected my politics because they were so “pragmatic.” We were specifically talking about sex and bodies, and my rejection of hippie celebration of sweat and menstrual blood. I didn’t think these things needed to be pathologized, but embracing them as holy seemed to miss the point of loving our humanness, which isn’t holy, it’s just true.


I do my first reading with the Collective Tarot about a new opportunity in my life. I pull the Five of Keys—a burnt-over wasteland. This feels devastatingly accurate, even as I smell the mossy scent of rebirth. The Nine of Bottles—the wish card—crosses me. The rest of the reading is just as positive and I am giddy with excitement. So I do another, about if I will have a baby.


I am not in a position to have a baby right now, but I feel a strong maternal push in my life and one of the things that I am always looking for in my mystical reachings is direction on what a single 34 year old woman is going to do about motherhood. When I did readings with the traditional deck about whether or not I would have a baby, they were ambiguous, but the figure of the Empress always appeared. She represents the archetypical feminine, the earth goddess figure that, despite my pragmatic feminism, I fall for every time.



In both of my first readings, this jolly lady shows up. I almost never drew the Hermit in the other deck. I read the description and fell in love with this card, but I’ll only quote a few short pieces for you.

“she encourages us to create within our own selves a container that can literally hold a new vision.”

“she is actually at work travelling the dark terrain of miracles, and there is nowhere we won’t go to seek her truth.”

“Externally, the Hermit encourages us to question the foundations of whatever establishments…that conta

in us. She may choose to abandon these structures, but only because she is seeking a more radiant picture to surface from the deep.”

I read this description and got chills.


I realized that this was why I do the tarot. I do not feel comfortable in a regular life, but very few people in my life are able to help me think outside of the regular strictures of a career, a nuclear family, a reasonably priced condo. The art and politics of the tarot (well, the Collective Tarot, to be precise) allow me imagine something I haven’t seen before. They aren’t showing me the future as it surely will be, but how it could be if I wanted to work at it in this way.


The cards don’t tell me that I will or won’t be a mother. They tell me that I need to be more imaginative about it. I close my eyes and imagine taking in foster kids. I think about being the adult ally to my cousins and my friends’ kids.  I wonder why I never seriously considered teaching. I feel my dog nuzzle against me and think about rescuing abused animals.


Activists have talked a lot recently about self-care. We bandy around Audre Lorde quotes and stress-reduction tips, but none of that really addresses the issue as I see it, which is a lack of inspiration and imagination. If we keep fighting the same fight, of course we’re going to burn out. (I mean, how many times do we have to explain what rape is, anyway?) We need to take the time to think beyond what it is and think about what we want it to be.

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