Sunday, March 26, 2017

Call It The Rider-Waite-SMITH, Please

Today is the last Sunday in March, which is Women's History Month. I thought it fitting to close out with a repeat of a previous column celebrating the woman at the heart of tarot, Pamela Coleman Smith, whose designs make up the famous Rider-Waite-Smith deck and whose name is often unfortunately, heinously, criminally left out of the deck's name.

You can still see her on the cards, though. Look on each for a small monogram of a “P” crossed with a looping “C” and “S.” It looks like a cross between a sigil and a logogram, and it is the signature of Pamela Coleman Smith.

You can find it easily in the lower right of the Three of Cups, the card that celebrates the richness of deep friendship. Smith chose to illustrate that card with three women dancing in joy and abundance and camaraderie, their golden chalices held high, and so now that card has become synonymous with the power of female relationship.

Pamela did that.
The Rider-Waite-Smith, also called the RWS, is the most famous of the tarot decks. Its images are well-known in popular culture. What is less well-known is how revolutionary those images are, how they completely transformed tarot interpretation. As the illustrator for the deck, Smith created pictorial scenes not just for the major cardsthe heavy hitters like Death and The Foolbut also for the pips, the numbered cards. By portraying the minor arcana in this way, Smith removed the separation between the "big" cards and the "little" ones, making the more mundane moments of our lives, the nostalgia and ennui and first heart-flutter of romance, as important and worthy of contemplation as the milestones.

She created scenes and peopled them with with dynamic characters, allowing the reader to literally imagine herself in the cards. Her background as a theatre major shows in these stagings, which are clear enough to get right to the heart of each card's energy, but intricate enough that the reader can layer her own life on top of them and read the detailshere a white dog, there a handful of rosesas personal revelation.

As Smith herself explains in an article entitled "Should the Art Student Think?":
"Note the dress, the type of face; see if you can trace the character in the face; note the pose. . . . First watch the simple forms of joy, of fear, of sorrow; look at the position taken by the whole body. . . . After you have found how to tell a simple story, put in more details. . . . Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything! . . . Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country."

The door into the unknown country. Yes indeed.

It's one of the great unfairnesses that Smith received very little compensation for her work, and even less recognition for helping create what has become the most accessible and popular tarot deck of all time. As she wrote to her mentor, Alfred Stieglitz, "I have just completed a big job for very little cash!" Even her name got dropped from the deck, which is why I both write and speak that SMITH now in all caps.

She was a multi-faceted persona synaesthetic artist and member of The Order of the Golden Dawn who eventually converted to Catholicism. She published writers like William Butler Yeats in the magazine she founded, had her work exhibited at top notch galleries, worked as an illustrator for Bram Stoker, and yet she died penniless.

She was a fervent supporter of women's suffrage, lending her voice and her talents to the cause. Little is known about her romantic life except that she never did marry, preferring the company of women, it seems. She was eccentric, brilliant, generous, and lived a life of adventure and whole-hearted creative joy.

So when you speak of the tarot, be sure to give Pamela Colman Smith her due. Say her name loud and proud. 

In honor of her, and as a gift for you, I offer the Three of Cups this week. May you find joy and support and abundance among your tribe, and may you always know the love of good strong creative women.

For Further Reading:

The BBC's Bio of Pamela Colman Smith (with fascinating footnotes)

"Giving Thanks to Pamela Colman Smith" on Little Red Tarot

"Pamela Colman Smith" at Wikipedia (also with interesting footnotes and further source reading

Holly Voley's Website devoted to Pamela Colman Smith

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Reading for the Vernal Equinox

Like full moons and solstices, an equinox exists as a point in a continuum. Though we celebrate it as the day when light and dark are equal, it is actually a singular moment. Fleeting. Impossible to pin down. As liquid and relentlessly flowing as time itself.

The 2017 vernal equinox will be on Monday, March 20 at 6:28 AM when the sun crosses the celestial equator to enter the sky’s Northern Hemisphere. Known as Ostara, Eostre, or Alban Eilir in the Wheel of the Year, the spring equinox reminds us of the importance of balance. We are letting go of the hibernating, nurturing night and moving into the clean, fresh day.

Like an equinox, a tarot reading is also a moment. A snapshot of a slice of time. Unlike an equinox, however, a tarot reading captures that moment and holds it still. Once the cards are laid out, a tarot reading exists outside of time even as it perfectly preserves it. This allows us to make one singular moment tangible enough to look at and think about and quite literally hold in our hands.

I designed this Vernal Equinox spread in the shape of a flower, with one card as the stem, two cards as leaves, and one card as the blossoming petals. I also added another wild card floating above my flower (like a bee or butterfly) to represent any external energies affecting our reading. This allows us to explore the foundational conditions carried over from the winter, supporting energies, the flower itself, and any other something that might come buzzing up.

And here is what I got.

Well. Things started off solid enough with the Six of Pentacles as the stem. This is often called the karma card, described in the Steampunk Tarot (which you'll see pictured in the spread) as the card of flowing material resources. Flow looks like a very chaotic and random processand in many ways it as, as one cannot predict where one particular droplet of water will end up when all is said and donebut fluid dynamics calculates the process of flow quite accurately. And that is what karma is, after allaction flowing inexorably into consequence.

(PS: We see this idea continued in our final result, our blooming Wheel of Fortune. But we'll get to that in a second).

Our supporting influences (the leaves) are the Queen of Pentacles and the Two of Cups. This Queen represents someone who provides material comfort and support, so be grateful when she shows up this spring, and say thank you. The Two of Cups classically refers to a romantic attraction, but it can also mean any emotionally exciting partnership, especially in its early stages.

Our final resultour bountiful floweris the Wheel of Fortune. For while the Six of Pentacles is about cause and effect, the Wheel is about randomness. But if you've ever studied fractal patterns, you know that even in the most seemingly random occurrence, you'll see the spiraling patterns of order. Which is so seductive, after all. To know the rules is to know the order, and to know the order is to predict and protect.

Ah. But then there is the Tower. I had hoped that spring would bring us something like a bee or butterfly, a pollinator of some kind. Alas. We get the unexpected freeze and the hard rain as surprise guests. But not all is lost. The Tower is no friendly card, but the destruction it foretells has always been inevitable. And the clean space it leaves behind is the best ground to till for whatever you want to come next. What will that be? That is up to you.

So creative ones, batten down the hatches and the hatchlings and any other delicate objectsthis spring is going to be a wild ride. Projects will live and die and be reborn in astounding ways. You will receive help from unexpected quarters and unforeseen partners. Yes, rough winds may shake the darling buds this month, but destruction and construction are two sides of the same coin. Practice what Keats called the negative capability, the ability to hold two contrary ideas simultaneously and not seek to reconcile them, and you'll be fine.

Is it all just a big dice game? Or is there some inherent meaning under it all? The answer is yes.

Now go out there with the birds and the bees and create something. Will it last? Who knows? Make it as beautiful and true as you can regardless. That's all the Universe asks of us. And enjoy the creating. The birds and the bees surely do.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

This Week's Writerly Tarot: The Devil

Say what you will, the Devil is certainly an attention-getting card. I mean, look at itin the Rider-Waite-Smith, it's a symbolic buffet of everything our culture regards as evil, personified by the goat-headed and bat-winged Baphomet, the upside-down pentacle, the naked human figures in chains. Darkness. Damnation. Despair. It's all in there.

Except that it's not.

Like most of the more unfriendly-looking cards, there's a deeper meaning that isn't so overtly terrifying. In the Steampunk Tarot, the Devil is a red-hot coal-guzzling machine of our own making that requires constant stoking, constant attention. In the Druidcraft deck, the Celtic horned god Cernunnos takes the place of the Devil, and reminds us that our pleasures can sometimes become our addictions. In the World Spirit tarot, the Devil looks like a rock star with flowing black hair and skintight leather pants, and he stands on a stage with hellfire burning behind him; this Devil is all about temptation and the taboo.

So what does the Devil right in front of us have to say? As always, a closer look reveals the truth. For even though the slightly demonic humans on this card are chained to their demons (literally), the chains are loose around their necks, easy to slip off if they wanted to. And that's the key to understanding the bondage pictured here—it's voluntary. We forged the chains that hold us. We are complicit in our own domination. But we have the power to slip free.

Ponder the things that bind you—how many of them are things you have created yourself? As a writer, I sometimes spend more time emailing, blogging, Facebooking, tweeting, reviewing, promoting, marketing, and updating my website than I do actually working on my WIP. And the thing is, I invited all these things into my life. I heaped them on my plate all by myself. Busyness can be utterly addicting, I have discovered.

This week, look at the chains you have willingly created link by link. Some of them might be pretty; some of them might have been useful once upon a time. Surely some are loose enough to slip right off your neck. Shake 'em off, baby. Leave 'em on the floor as you walk away.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

This Week's Writerly Tarot: The Star

I am sick. I didn't need a crystal ball to see it coming. My throat was scratchy, and my whole body hurt far worse than it should have after a simple bike ride in the park. Soon the fever and the headache and the stuffed-up head followed.

So, for the third week in a row, I asked someone else to pull the card for this week's reading. That's the part that requires clarity, after all, letting your fingers move lightly from possibility to possibility, waiting for the humming yes, like a chime from a distant room, that releases all the unresolved potentialities and brings forth the correct, singular reality.

Enter Destiny.

That's her name, after all, and she was sitting right there in the chair opposite me. What kind of diviner could I call myself if I failed to notice that obvious synchronicity? She's also a fine writer, currently co-authoring an online work (with my daughter Kaley) that contains chapter titles like "Half-Dragon Will Travel." But I digress (cold meds will do that). The point is, she was perfectly suited to be a channel for Universal wisdom this Sunday morning, so I handed her my daughter's deck and deputized her right up.

Destiny pulled The Star for you. You should thank her if you get the chance, for The Star is one of the finest cards in the major arcana, indeed, in the entire deck. It's a big card, as big as hope and hard work put together, because at its heart, it's a card of movement. But not celestial movement. Your movement. Which means it's a matter of perspective. For no matter how much the stars seem to move, it's really Earth that's moving.

This week, look around for whatever it is that is your creative North Star. It's usually a fixed point (relative to your own dynamic flux anyway) so not fame. Not riches. Think something more substantial and affirming and satisfying, something that connects you to your creative purpose regardless of your creative circumstances.

Remember, the Star usually shines brightest when things are darkest, so turn off the artificial lights, let your eyes adjust. You must know where to look as wellyou must seek your Star at its proper place on the horizon and keep your eye on it as you move forward. And you must movethis Star does not grant flimsy wishes with no effort behind them. This Star promises to guide you to your zenith. But you must follow it step by tangible step.

So what are you waiting for? Get to stepping. And trust that The Star will never steer you wrong.