Tell Your Story
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Tell Your Story

A Skeptical Writer Explores the Tarot

A Magical Mystery Tour

A deck of Rider-Waite-Smith tarot cards sits atop a tarot guidebook
Tools of the tarot trade

The long and winding road

I’ve always been a natural skeptic. I like hard science and reproducible evidence, and, despite eight years of Catholic school, I stopped believing in religion many years ago. While I try to keep an open mind, mystical woo like chakras, crystals, and spirit guides makes my eyes roll — but I’ve always been a bit fascinated by the tarot. Maybe it’s because my Mom went through a tarot phase when I was young and read me at an impressionable age, but tarot seemed to have a depth to it that other supposed divination methods lacked.

Now that I’m older, I understand a bit more. The tarot deck draws on ancient symbols and traditions, using images to tell a story that makes sense of life itself. I’ve read mythologists like Jung and Joseph Campbell, and I’m eager to learn more, so I’m less interested in the tarot as a tool for contacting the spirit realm and more as an exploration of human wisdom.

The tarot’s twenty-two major arcana cards arranged in a wavy line from left to right
The major arcana, from The Fool to The World

The twenty-two cards of the major arcana outline a path from naïve beginnings through worldly materialism to spiritual wisdom and rebirth, often known as the Fool’s Journey, after the first card in the sequence. My life has been empty and unfulfilling for a long time now; perhaps a little investigation into the spiritual realm is in order.

And hey, even if that doesn’t work out, I write fantasy and horror fiction, so knowing a bit about the occult aspects can’t hurt, either.

Got to get you into my life

So, a couple of weeks ago, I bought a tarot deck. Specifically, the classic Rider-Waite-Smith deck, because that’s the standard entry-level choice for noobs like me. For guidance, I picked up Liz Dean’s The Ultimate Guide to Tarot, another popular beginner’s option. I noticed that the clerk in Barnes & Noble tucked my receipt into the book’s section on the Hermit, which seemed appropriate to an introvert like me. There are signs everywhere!

When I got home, I started my tarot exploration by shuffling the deck and drawing a single card. I had nothing particular in mind, just a general, “Let’s see what this turns up. Tell me what you know.” I drew the five of pentacles.

The five of pentacles from the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck
My first tarot card: the five of pentacles

Wow. That’s a major downer of an image; even before reading about it, I could feel the pain and struggle. The card depicts a crippled beggar, wearing a bell to warn others of his leprosy, hobbling through a snowstorm with a gray-haired woman in a red cloak. The man is an outcast; the woman is strong and willing to persist, but too focused on survival to see any possibility of change in her situation. They walk past a stained-glass window, reminiscent of a church, without looking at it. They are excluded from the community.

I gotta say, that’s a damned good representation of my situation in a single image. As an ex-felon, I’m very much a pariah, and I’ve struggled for most of the past decade, persevering through dull routine just to survive and grind out a living. The future has seemed very far away at times. And as a non-religious person, I’m certainly not part of a church, but I am looking for acceptance within an institution, in a way. One of my main goals these days is to become an active part of Philadelphia’s literary community, to meet new people and find friends, lovers, and creative partners. In short, I’d like to be less of, well, a hermit.

Per the book, pentacles are the suit of the earth element; they correspond to physical and mundane topics, like property, money, and career. It lists 5P’s primary meaning as “a test of resources” and says its traditional meaning is one of financial loss or the fear of poverty and isolation. I quit my job a few days before buying my deck, willingly giving up a steady paycheck and a path toward advancement to pursue my writing career and a better social life. In that context, the card was quite accurate, capturing not just my choice, but also my fear that I’ll fail and end up broke and alone again.

So, I was impressed. In one card, the tarot pointed to the major theme of my life right now, summing up my past, my present, and my hopes for the future in a way that didn’t demand a great stretch of interpretation. Spooky. Groovy. I was very curious about what was to come.

A hard day’s night

For my first real reading, I decided to keep it simple and do a basic “past-present-future” spread. Those Celtic crosses looked intimidating, but even a tarot neophyte like me could understand linear time. I shuffled up and dealt three cards.

My first reading: past, present, and future

All right, this one wasn’t as intuitively clear as the first, but that Justice card in the center certainly caught my eye. The Wheel of Fortune looked interesting, too, though I didn’t know why. And I had no idea what to make of the first card. But that’s why I bought the book!

My past card turned out to be the three of pentacles. Sometimes called “the architect”, it depicts a skilled stonemason working on a church, and it’s generally taken to signify success, reward, and connection to the community. In many ways, it’s the polar opposite of my first card, the 5P. In this reading, though, it’s reversed, giving a much more negative interpretation.

Two tarot cards side by side: the three and five of pentacles
Within and without — the three and five of pentacles

The reversed 3P is a card of failure and dissatisfaction. The architect labors, but poorly and without reward or satisfaction (it’s hard to be productive when you’re turned on your head, I imagine). Wow. That’s a pretty major theme throughout my life. From my failed attempt to earn a masters’ degree, to my productive but ultimately unsatisfying career as a software developer, to my poor discipline as a writer, I’ve always shown potential, but rarely lived up to it.

On to the present day: Justice, a card that seemed relevant the moment I saw it. Once again, the card is reversed, signifying that, for now, justice goes against me. I can’t argue that. I’m an ex-felon, living under parole restrictions and struggling against my limitations. The only job I’ve been able to find so far is night-shift factory work, and even pre-COVID, I had no social life and little time to write. As the book points out, the Rider-Waite’s version of Justice is not blindfolded but sees clearly; I know I earned my fate, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Finally, the future: the Wheel of Fortune. A major turn is coming in my life, most likely for the better; I just have to relax and go with the flow. Well, I certainly like the sound of that. I’ve already taken a step toward improving things by quitting my old job, and I’m interviewing for a new one which sounds a lot more flexible and fulfilling. I’m also doing a lot more writing, including on Medium, and feeling much happier as a result. There are a lot of changes in the works.

Three tarot cards on a black background: The Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, and Justice
The turning point in the major arcana — The Hermit, The Wheel of Fortune, & Justice

It’s worth noting that the Wheel of Fortune is the tenth card of the major arcana; it marks the halfway point in the Fool’s journey, where he begins to shift his focus from the external, material world to the spiritual one. Like the Fool himself, I’m at the start of a new journey, exploring the world of the tarot, but I’m also well on my way through the journey of life. These days, I’m less interested in material success and more focused on living well and contributing to society — what some could call spiritual matters. The Wheel is turning, as it does for us all.

The fool on the hill

The Fool sets off on his journey.

Once again, I was impressed. My first reading agreed with my introductory card and expanded upon it in a clear and easy-to-interpret way. As a budding writer, I appreciate the importance of storytelling, and I was amazed by how easily these cards lent themselves to the narrative of my life.

But what does that mean? Was it all coincidence? Spiritual guidance? Or just a set of images that are vague enough to interpret any way that I wish? I still have a lot of learning to do, but like the Fool, I’m excited to be starting out.

And wherever my journey takes me, I’ll be sure to keep an open mind.

All photos in this essay by the author (who makes no claims to being a great photographer). The images on the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck are in the public domain.



Everyone has a story to tell, probably many more than one. Tell Your Story is home for the best creative nonfiction and personal essays on Medium, stories from the heart that help us all understand a little bit more about ourselves and the world around us.

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Steven Stampone

Humorist. Serious-ist. Supercallafragilisticexpialodoc-ist. You get the gist. for more.