Three years ago I studied abroad in England for six weeks. My cohort was living at a college in Oxford, but we took weekend trips to different parts of England, including London and the border of Wales. We were on the return trip home from a particularly beautiful trip to the Tintagel cliffs in Cornwall, where we stayed in a gorgeous seaside town overnight. I was already feeling more connected to nature and free from life's obligations (especially considered there was no wi-fi to be found for miles), and on this trip I had bonded particularly with several of the people who I would form close friendships with on the trip. We stopped the bus at Glastonbury Abbey so that we could tour the burial place of King Arthur to complement the medievalism class we were taking, and by chance there was a pagan festival going on in the town that weekend. We were given several hours to explore the town square, grab lunch, and participate in festival activities if we wanted.
At this point in my life I was still quite committed to reason-based atheism. I was an active member of the secular humanism club, but had not explored any spirituality in several years. However, I felt myself being drawn to alternate expression. I had dyed my hair blue, the first time ever pushing the boundaries of social norm appearances, and I had several conversations with a friend about my ability to sense auras and my keen intuition for how other people were feeling. I had never seriously explored any pagan or magickal rites or rituals, and still held misconceptions about what they meant. I saw signs for tarot readings pinned up all over the place, and after getting together with several girls on the trip, we all agreed we would sign up, just for giggles.
I had never had my cards read at this point. I'm not sure if I had ever even seen a tarot deck in person, just in the movies or TV where the reader was an old, bedazzled woman selling fantasies to a young, gullible girl. Honestly, I went into the session expecting to get a good story out of it so I could laugh with my friends about the ridiculousness of some stranger spinning yarns about my future.
I could not have been in for a bigger shock.
After climbing a narrow staircase to the upstairs of a little incense shop, a sign instructed me to remove my shoes and take several deep breaths before entering. I still remember how soft the carpet was outside the door. The room was bright and airy, not dark and hazy like I was expecting. I opened the door and stepped into a smaller room, where a woman dressed in loose fitting earth toned clothes sat in a chair besides a table that was pushed in front of a large, bright window. A lovely sheer curtain hung in front of the window to filter the light coming in; the room reminded me a bit of my bedroom, and I immediately felt at ease.
The reader (I regret that I can't remember her name) invited me to have a seat. She had a soft voice and a soft but open face, inquisitive but very kind. She had a few deep lines around her eyes that reminded me of my grandmother's, and she offered me some water before the session began. She took some time to get to know a bit about me: my name, where I was from, why I was visiting England, had I had my cards read before, etc. Polite chit chat to help her get my bearings and perhaps study my mannerisms and body language before getting started.
She explained that she did not have a particular set method for card layouts, and that we could draw cards one at a time, or all at once, however I felt most comfortable. I liked the idea of choosing one card at a time, so she pulled one from her deck. The deck she used is not at all similar to the one I use now, as hers was full of natural imagery and a wide array of colors--very different from the primary colors and archetypal art of the Rider-Waite.
Placing a card with the image of a tree before me, she studied my face for several moments. "I sense that you struggle with eating," she said. "You find it a challenge to eat simply as nourishment: you attach emotional meaning to your food and often eat compulsively because of it. Does that resonate?"
I froze. I was speechless. Looking back, I cannot adequately describe what the cocktail of emotions I was feeling actually felt like. Never in my entire life had I met someone who could cut through the earthy, Capricorn layers on top of my soul and expose the darkest secret that I hid from 99% of people in my life.
My reader had perfectly identified my eating disorder after only a few minutes of talking to me. It didn't feel like a lucky guess; when I managed a nod, she simply took my hand and said "It's alright. You have nothing to be ashamed of here." Never in my life had I been invited to be vulnerable with someone. When I experienced vulnerability, either in therapy or in conversation, it came because I was at a breaking point and sought it out. Because of who I am in my "regular" life, no one expects me to need vulnerability, and I think it makes some of them a bit uncomfortable when they see the cracks in my calm and wise exterior. Yet here I was, a perfect stranger who was not even a licensed therapist or mental health professional, revealing more truth to me than anyone else ever had.
When I recovered from the shock, I managed to tell her about my diagnosis with BED two years prior, that I was currently seeking treatment and therapy for the issues, but was still feeling overwhelmed by the behavior manifesting in my daily life. She smiled softly and said "That's because you see yourself as the caregiver. You are the one who nourishes people, both body and mind, and it baffles you that you can't nourish yourself properly, neither through food nor spiritual food. You're a caregiver now, but you could be a healer. But first, you have to give care to yourself; first, you must learn to heal yourself."
She pointed back to the card and told me "You need to find this tree. You need to put your back up against this tree and let it support you. This tree can feed you, it can give you oxygen and fruit, and it will heal you." The session lasted nearly an hour, and it was more conversational and insightful than most things I have experienced. We laughed together, I cried a bit, and I left that day determined to find the tree she promised was waiting for me. I believe the tree could be either physical or metaphorical, and I've put my back against many a tree in my quest for finding the right one. The longer I live past this session though, the more I find the tree to be symbolic. It has many branches that twist together into one trunk that keeps me standing tall when I feel shaky, and gives me a place to rest when I truly need it.
Reading tarot for myself and others has become one of these branches. It oxygenates my blood and connects me to the beating hearts of other people. The people that sit down across from me at table, whether I am there to read their cards, break bread with them, or simply chat both heal me and are healed by our connection. It's a beautiful interchange of energy that has helped me grapple with many of the obstacles I've stared down my entire life, especially relating to food.
Across religion, culture, race, and bias, human beings are drawn to metaphor. We crave meaning in symbols, we look for patterns, and we try to make sense of our seemingly chaotic emotions by giving them names and occurrences. The tarot combines and cuts through the cultural divides and linguistic barriers we face as best it can, trying to get at the universal truths that guide the essence of our religions, actions, and beliefs. Using each card as a lens for our thoughts and behaviors gives us a chance to connect and communicate in a shared language that can be accessed by a much larger audience than the one inside a cathedral, or mosque, or school. This connection is healing and nourishing, it repairs the wounds that misunderstanding and prejudice inflict. Most of all, it helps us heal from the inside out, so that we may bring these universal truths to others after understanding them for ourselves.
The way I look at healing was forever changed by my first tarot reading, but I implore everyone not to be discouraged if your first encounter with tarot or universal truth-seeking is unsatisfactory. We are all but a bunch of flawed humans, guided by our learned biases, and we may not always do a very good job of shedding those biases to speak truths. The old adage is especially relevant here: "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again." There is always something to be learned, even in discomfort or longing.