building a mystery

this piece was originally conceived and written as a submission for autostraddle's bad behavior issue. while my essay was not selected for publication, i've decided to share it with the community anyway, in the hopes of receiving feedback and building connection. thank you for reading, and please check out the incredible pieces being published this month! --

A few years ago, a dark figure began to appear in my dreams. I can barely sleep as it is, and when I had a literal vision of Death, quiet and ominous, my insomnia kicked into high gear. This mysterious and foreboding shadow wasn’t moving, didn’t threaten, but instead just waited in the shadows, a question I couldn’t answer or ignore.

Googling “death dreams” isn’t something I’d recommend. But it quickly became clear that I wasn’t just seeing the vague image of a grim reaper - I was specifically fixated on the Death card from the tarot, something I knew nothing about. Rather than signifying the end of life, I discovered that Death represented release, transformation, closure, and was also associated with my Scorpio sun sign. This difficult card is one of the most famous, and most feared, but I found its presence strangely calming, an invitation to leave something behind and start anew. There are hundreds of versions of this card, each showing a new side of Death that pushed my understanding far beyond its limits. I was fascinated, entranced, infatuated. My conservative, religious roots were rebelling, telling me firmly that this was dangerous ground. But my heart was crying out for more.

After months of obsessively researching decks and tarot primers, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to buy cards of my own. I mean, I was already queer. Why not also be a witch? If I’m going to hell, I may as well do some divination about it.

I eventually narrowed my search to The Wild Unknown, the deck I was most consistently drawn to in my research. After wandering the aisles for almost an hour, hands clammy, I finally made my way down to the Dark Arts section of The Strand, hidden in the back of the lowest floor. I was awkward and nervous, sure that someone would see the stain of Baptist theology on my skin and laugh me out of the store. But nobody stopped me, because nobody particularly cared, and when I finally left the bookstore with my brand new cards it was as if I’d been reborn. That simple act of defiance gave me courage, felt like a brave step into an unknown spirituality that I’d always been too afraid to explore.

Unwrapping my new deck was exhilarating. It felt like I was holding a promise in my hands, an invitation to a new way of seeing everything. I’d read about tarot expanding worlds, inspiring and challenging, pushing readers outside of themselves. I believed I was ready to shed my traditionally religious roots, prepared to embrace a new way of thinking. That rebellion that had been simmering in my blood for so many years was finally free, and I was joyful, expectant, and deeply terrified.

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But when the time came to actually start reading, everything shifted. In theory, I adored the idea of every card having layers of meaning. I wanted to be able to read for a hundred years and still find new interpretations of the symbolism, new combinations of cards that brought out hidden layers, new decks that challenged what I thought I knew about a well-studied card. But in reality, I hated the ambiguity. My chosen deck was bold and graphic, with simple hand-drawn illustrations and little of the classic symbolism found in more traditional decks. I was lost in the images, unsure of how to proceed. Instead of relying on myself, I filled notebooks with research, studying the interpretations of others. I wanted to be an expert, but I didn’t trust my own experience. And after a few months, I put the cards away, ashamed of my failure.

Reading tarot is like learning to speak another language. It’s complicated, and difficult, and fluency feels impossible. There is always someone that has been speaking longer, that has more natural ability, that uses a dialect or slang that feels completely out of reach. Tarot is about connecting with the cards, building your own meaning, and trusting your gut - all things that I had absolutely no experience with.

The only other language I knew was that of conservative evangelicalism. My parents planted a fire-and-brimstone Baptist church when I was just six years old, and I quickly learned that I should listen to my elders, ignore my intuition, and fully accept that any instinct I possessed was driven by sin. By age fourteen I knew that I was probably bisexual, even if I didn’t have the language to explain it to myself or anyone else. Church had spiraled into a weekly torture as I worked my hardest to pretend that I was straight, “normal,” and the perfect leader my parents needed me to be. Listening to my pastor preach on the evils of humanity year after year, particularly the insidious and destructive nature of homosexuality, broke something inside of me. It convinced me that I was damaged beyond repair, a mistake that God was ready to discard, and told me that everything I wanted to explore was deeply wrong.

For most churchgoers, Biblical study is something that’s left to the ministers, scholars, and theologians. We sit in silence, listen to their wisdom and interpretations, and accept their understanding as truth. Most of the experts I studied were white men, privileged and powerful. They seemed more interested in having the last word and maintaining their positions than in making their work accessible, and were rarely willing to change their opinions. It was our job to memorize and submit to their methods, not to explore.

In sharp contrast, tarot has room for both classical study and inner wisdom, with two different religious archetypes within its major arcana. The Hierophant is right at home in evangelicalism, and while his strict traditions and rigid structure can be stifling, he is also a powerful reminder of the beauty and majesty in ritual. There’s divine magic present when we sing those old hymns, take communion, whisper ancient words - we trace the pathways build by generations of disciples and followers, connecting to something far beyond ourselves. But the High Priestess whispers of darkness and mystery, inviting us to explore our own shadows, trust our intuition, and embrace what we cannot know. It is the High Priestess that teaches us to make our own magic, that helps us learn and speak the language of tarot. She was the one I wanted to be, to learn from.

My deck and notebook sat idle for weeks. But the pull of the Priestess was irresistible, and eventually I reached for the cards again, determined to make my own way.

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Day by day, my deck began to feel more at home in my hands. The paper became softer, worn, and shuffling made me feel calm and comfortable. I learned the language and meaning of the cards, because I created my own. I could feel my rules softening, my impulse for control easing, and I stopped consulting my meticulous research on spreads and symbols during every reading. I spoke to the cards gently, spilling my secrets to them with less and less restraint. Whispering my worries, laughing at the wicked, clever responses - I’d never had a friend quite like tarot, one that I could be fully honest with, one that wouldn’t judge my questions, my fears, my doubts.

Somewhere along the way, those quiet conversations began to shift into prayers. Instead of crying out to a faceless Father, feeling endlessly alone, I had a tangible way to communicate and understand. The cards made it easier to be open, telling me what I often already knew but still needed to hear. Having an actual dialogue free from judgment soothed me, the cards offering reassurance or challenges or a swift kick in the ass. Even when the conversation was hard, it still felt real, honest and pure and so good that I couldn’t believe I’d been afraid for so long. I hadn’t abandoned my faith - I’d simply found a new way to experience it, one that made more sense to me than anything else I’d known.

Tarot hasn’t erased my pain, but it has given me a new outlet for exploring and understanding it. While attending conservative churches, I was constantly drowning in confusion, unable to understand how my identity as a bisexual woman and my religious beliefs could possibly work together. This theology told me that my depression was something I could pray away, that my queerness made me an abomination, that my confusion was a weakness and a sin. My churches taught me to hate myself, and I’m still trying to unlearn those lessons. But tarot has space for all of my identities and struggles, accepting me exactly where I am. It gives me room to explore every side of myself, permission to be the flawed human that I’ve always been, and a chance to reclaim the faith that nearly destroyed me.

Now, I carry my cards with me the way I used to carry my Bible - tucked into shoulder bags, protected in luggage, cherished when away from the rituals and comforts of home. I read them every morning, and they help the rest of my day fall into place, much like the simple private devotions of my childhood.

My faith and spirituality are still a work in progress. I’m not quite ready to identify as a witch, but I feel very uncomfortable using the label of “Christian.” I’m somewhere in-between. The cards have helped me carve out my own space, where my queer identity, love of tarot, and evangelical background don’t have to make perfect sense. I may not have all of the answers, but I’m no longer afraid to ask the questions.

Tarot isn’t a religion, not for me. But like any good practice, the cards push me to examine myself, from the deepest darkness to the quiet flickers of light. Tarot challenges me to be more, to be better. It gives me a voice, and encourages me to use it. It listens, and it hears. These little cards have given me access to a new side of my own faith, have let me keep Christ and queerness and kindness, all in one beautiful, messy tangle.

Now, I laugh when the Death card appears. I pray with the High Priestess and the Magician. I feel seen with the Ten of Swords, the Five of Cups, the Ace of Wands. And I let the Star tug me forward, acting as my guiding light.

Tarot cards have helped me to heal, in a way that I never expected. Every time I read, my decks teach me how to put the broken pieces of myself back together, into a person that I’m learning how to love.

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