What even IS tarot? This is a question that inevitably comes up for every tarot reader. In this post, Cassandra Snow explores how reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s “In Other Words” helped her come to terms with the tarot as a personal and professional practice.
This is a part of the Summer Reading Coven series hosted by Northern Lights Witch. Throughout the summer, we will be highlighting books that have moved us deeply and impacted our practices as witches and occult practitioners.
Back in March, I was eager to read my long time favorite writer’s latest: In Other Words by Jhumpra Lahiri. Her poeticism and lust for something deeper has always moved me, and this, a memoir (my favorite genre), was sure to top even my favorite stories of hers. In Other Words is Lahiri’s chronicle of her life-long quest to be fluent in Italian, though she was born in London to Indian immigrants.
Her work always addresses that feeling like you don’t fit in anywhere, but this particular journey becomes an insatiable lust to at least conquer this one thing. Learning Italian. For any literature fans, the excitement and disappointments along her learning curve will resonate. It is also deeply personal and “A-HA!” inducing for anyone with a passion gnawing at them that even they don’t understand, and for me, it answered a question I’d been grappling with for months: “What even IS tarot?!”
The first time I picked up a tarot deck, I was 18 years old. I’d been sexually assaulted twice in one month and was living with a deeply emotionally abusive person. I was coming to terms with how messed up a lot of stuff from my upbringing was. I was also deeply in the closet, living a double life floating between a group of very opinionated conservative Christians and a very codependent but more thrill-seeking crowd.
One night my friends from that latter group and I headed to the creepy dorm basement we hung out in. Someone pulled out a novelty tarot deck—The Lord of the Rings. Normally my experiments away from conservative Christianity made me feel slightly naughty but this was different. As a friend threw a few cards down to read for me, I felt calm and receptive.
I felt present like I had not in months.
They had no clue what they were doing and used the book, but the message was crystal clear. The cards said I was completely screwing up my life through no fault of mine, but that it was my responsibility to start the healing process or else. I was deeply shaken, but the cards served as a necessary impetus and after taking that initial advice, I saw enough “ups” in my roller coaster life that I not only began healing but became obsessed with tarot.
I snuck time with my roommate’s “Pagan Tarot” even though I was put off by the “Pagan” – a hilarious notion now. I bought my own decks eventually, and through the tarot I figured out which friends were toxic, reconnected with the well of intuition I had buried, and through therapy and tarot combined began an all new spiritual practice led by the tarot.
With tarot in my pocket, I moved halfway across the country. I survived coming out, a lot of break ups, and some major medical scares. Eventually I became a person I am so proud to be every day. I’m not perfect, and I still struggle with raging insecurities. PTSD still has a significant impact on my life but not like it used to, and while I do not credit tarot alone, I do credit it significantly.
After going pro about seven years back though, my tarot practice changed a bit.
Some of these were positive changes, like learning ways to read the cards divorced from my own trauma and emotions. Some of the changes were not positive though, and my tarot journey stagnated. After developing and working with my identity-based interpretation for awhile, my readings felt almost mechanical and objective. For the first time in years, I would be bored by a deck quickly and no longer feel connected to it.
I couldn’t understand. I was still elated to work with clients. Teaching and writing came naturally and I loved them, but something still wasn’t clicking. It all just felt like “what I do” and not this huge internal movement it used to. Inexplicably, this cloud lifted after several months and I was back in my groove, but this raised more questions than it answered.
“What IS tarot?” is something that I started to fight with myself about, determined that I had to figure it out. I tried different styles of tarot journaling. I read a ton of tarot books, many which reignited that fire but still didn’t soothe my restless mind.
Which takes us back to March, and me stretched out on a lawn chair with buddy Parker (pictured) at my feet. I’m already fascinated by Lahiri’s story, and my tarot journey isn’t even on my mind. I am fully absorbed, and A LOT has affected me deeply and personally.
While I can not and will not pretend to know what immigrants go through in a search for feeling home and rooted, I DO know what it feels like to feel like you don’t have a home or fit anywhere. I teared up reading her line “I am exiled even from the definition of exile.” because I also know what it feels like to love that feeling and crave solace from it at the same time.
This has all shown up in my tarot practice and how I interpret the cards, so early on this book has shifted my thinking and how I read cards for those feeling lost—myself included.
Another emotional swell came when Lahiri writes of Janus’ two faces. “Two faces that look at the past and future at once. The ancient god of the threshold, of beginnings, and endings. He represents a moment of transition.”
I began actively crying, remembering my first time with tarot. Remembering the move halfway across the country. Remembering getting into therapy, choosing to commit to a queerplatonic partnership but still looking for romance, making the decision to heal, starting my theatre company, starting my tarot business, writing professionally, every time I have pushed passed my trauma to make love to a worthy partner.
All of these things ran through my mind for days, but for some reason whenever that swirl of thoughts landed, it landed on learning tarot in the first place. At this point, Lahiri has already made the stalemate I’ve had with the ideology of my professional tarot shift. It is my past and future, and maybe that’s enough for now.
Another bombshell would come, though not right away. After reading In Other Words there were thoughts I couldn’t cohesively put together about tarot as a journey itself and tarot as an unlearnable language sitting in me.
The metaphor of Lahiri’s love of Italian became clear over the next couple of days.
Perhaps the true beauty of tarot is that you can never truly master it, can never truly be fluent, can never truly be one with it.
Could I be okay with this? What does it means if I love a thing so much that can never truly be mine? Did I think Lahiri truly made peace with this in her own mission? Does it matter for my life if she did?
After a few weeks of thinking on it, I picked up the book again for a re-read, a thing I rarely do. Years of using decks for healing and guidance while leaning on books for intellectual and emotional stimulation had led me here, and this time the answers did click.
I chose to create my own metaphor and read the book the second time in a dingy basement. I knew this book had answered for me that essential question: “What even IS tarot?”
I needed to see it again. I grinned to myself, 3 AM nearing when those final puzzle pieces clicked into place as I re-read Lahiri’s words:
“If everything were possible, what would be the meaning of life? If it were possible to bride the distance between me and Italian, I would stop writing in that language.”
Cassandra Snow is a professional tarot card reader, theatre maker, and writer operating out of Minneapolis,MN. Cassandra has been reading tarot for over a decade, and encourages her clients to view tarot as a tool for healing and empowerment. Cassandra has a series on “Queering the Tarot” in syndication at Thecolu.mn and Little Red Tarot that she also leads occasional workshops on. You can find out more by visiting cassandra-snow.com where she also blogs occasionally.