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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a reading for a-camp

tomorrow i fly to ojai, california for a queer lady summer adventure called a-camp. hosted by autostraddle, a cultural website for queer folks, it's packed full of hiking, sing-a-longs, rainbow wars, whiskey tastings, dancing, movies, campfires, and friendship. this is my first year attending, and i signed up without knowing a soul - an uncharacteristically brave move, i must admit. i've been longing for a queer family of my own, and recently have been pushing myself to attend more events, connecting with people at meet-ups from nancy podcast and queer book clubs and even an inclusive, incredibly welcoming church service. a-camp feels like a massive, scary step, but i'm incredibly hopeful that it will bring me some lasting friendships, connections with local queer women, and a sense of belonging.

time for a holiday tarot spread.

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  1. your spirit in going: maiden of cups. i'm taking on this adventure, armed with intuition, a desire for connection, and a hope for the future. i'm trying to be as open as possible to this new experience, even though i'm anxious and intimidated by what may happen in the next week. i do feel a bit like a child, unsure of my place and hoping i don't embarrass myself or stand out.
  2. what to pack: five of cups. i should bring my lingering pain, feelings of loss and betrayal, sense of isolation? yes - because rather than ignoring the emotions i've been sorting through for the past few months, by acknowledging these feelings i can learn to release them. there's healing to be found at camp, if i'm willing to reach for it, but i won't find it by trying to leave my pain behind.
  3. what not to pack: two of pentacles. i've been juggling a lot, busy with local friends and new social events, multiple work clients pushing for more of my time, helping my partner through a difficult work period, worrying about several family members. this trip is a time for me, and an excellent opportunity to unplug, disconnect from the real world, and let some of that stress go.
  4. the spirit of the holiday: ten of cups. this trip is all about community, connections, and inclusivity - and so is this card! there's so much love and healing here, positive energy, overflowing joy, true happiness. this card gives me so much hope for true, lasting friendships being built at camp, which is exactly what i've been craving.
  5. the highlight: the magician. action, self-reliance, endless potential - this trip will include some powerful creative energy, the beginning of a new cycle, and help me learn to make my own magic. a sense that anything is possible will be a big part of this adventure. alchemy and manifestation are at my fingertips. something new, something powerful is being created. i am powerful.
  6. your souvenir: the world. completion, unity, actualization, interlocking energies, success, duality - this is a huge card, full of promise and celebration. it's a beginning and an end all at once, a sense of clarity and empowerment, a knowledge that we are exactly where we are supposed to be. this adventure couldn't be coming at a better time - and it seems that the universe feels the same way.

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honestly - wow. i'm a pretty cynical person by nature, and these cards are so positive that it's a bit overwhelming. the ten of cups and the world, all in one spread? it feels impossibly big to hold, too much joy and completion for one reading. and yet, this trip has felt full of magic and potential since i first signed up, and seeing cards this uplifting gives me such a sense of peace about going.

everything in me is telling me to be careful, to stay guarded, to keep my expectations low. i don't want to be disappointed if i don't come home with ten new best friends, a whole gaggle of nyc queers to call my own, a circle of intuitive tarot readers that want to stay connected - i want to be able to go with enjoyment, and take what i can. but these cards are giving me permission to hope for more, to be open and generous and bring my true, whole (and broken) self to this.

very grateful for tarot today.

daily lessons

it's been a very introspective week, as i adjust back to life in the city, try to get my bearings with my friends and family, and work to keep my depression at bay for as long as possible. i haven't really felt strong enough to hear lessons from the cards, but today's daily draw is a strong, passionate message that gives me much to consider: the hierophant. the-hierophantbefore i knew much of tarot, i thought of the hierophant as simply a teacher or mentor, someone with wisdom to impart and the patience to help others expand their worldview. but there's a weight to this card, a feeling of expectation, tradition, structure and system that makes me bristle. i grew up in a very religious household and church, and there's so much fervor, such intensity of belief and rigidity and absolutes, that i felt completely smothered. there's a sense of that overconfident preacher here, a fanaticism - only he holds the key, only he can wield it, and to understand the truth you must go through this messenger.

there may not be a strong presence of organized religion in my life right now, but i do have faith, and beliefs, and connections to things and energies greater than myself. my roots include so much of that structured, specific way of thinking - do this, not that; good and evil are opposites and never overlap; to be holy you must act this way and be this way. there's so much fear in that way of thinking, a constant paranoia that you may do something wrong and not even know it. and when you're secretly queer and growing up in the church, everything takes on new meaning. it's impossible to be yourself - you learn to hide in plain sight, to not rock the boat, to not ask too many questions.

in addition to the more traditional meanings, this card is reminding me of a recent difficult conversation with a family member - someone with very different views than i. what could've been constructive and illuminating quickly became toxic and harmful, simply because we had trouble understanding each other. this family member reminds me of the hierophant in a very negative way - so convinced that his perspective is the only correct one that he's unable to even consider any other way, any other truth. it frightened me, and it broke my heart.

but perhaps the hierophant is more than a stuffy, threatening, religious figure, desperate to convert and control, or someone with rigid, fanatical views based solely on his own experiences. perhaps instead i can take him back to that original meaning - a teacher, a mentor, or simply a way to dig deep and find meaning and truth and honesty. i feel strongly that we have to develop our own beliefs, find our own way to navigate the world and relate to the god/dess that we feel around us, and give weight and meaning to the perspectives that we have. faith is such a personal experience and expression, and sometimes the person speaking the loudest can overshadow that quiet inner voice that speaks our own truth.

(or maybe the cards are just reminding me to stop slacking on my tarot course and get back to work!)

either way, i want to be more open to the lessons of the hierophant. there is always more to learn, more to absorb, more to understand. and without challenging ourselves to find new perspectives, without continuing to read and listen and explore, we can never grow past our own limitations. i don't want to be stifled, but i don't want to stunt my own growth either.

confidence & courage

i'm still struggling with writing letters to my family, and i've been obsessing over it all week. i decided today to do a larger spread to help me find confidence and courage, in the hopes that i can finally finish this difficult task. this spread is from beth at little red tarot, and while it was designed to help build personal confidence on a more general level, i'm going to use it for my specific situation.

1. the root of my insecurity & fear

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the four of pentacles, a card of possession and control. this is not a card i've worked with before, but its themes are clear: brilliant threads hold the pentacles in tight formation, letting nothing else in. energy from the outside bounces right off, closing off the spaces between. the lines are so rigid and stiff that they do create a lot of security and protection, but perhaps this is simply an illusion. everything cannot be controlled - no one has that much power, even when we think we do.

it made me nervous to only have one card in this first position - after all, coming out as bisexual to my conservative brother and religious in-laws isn't exactly a simple scenario, and there are many reasons for my fears and worries. but ultimately, control is a big part of this - i have to give them part of myself, hand them my heart with trembling hands, and hope that they don't crush it. i have no control over their reaction, their feelings, their potential for anger or fear or sadness or betrayal. it's taken me a long time to get this point, and they deserve space to think and feel and react too. but once i reveal my truth, all i can do is trust them not to destroy it.

2. how to overcome these feelings

ten-of-cups

a colorful card of harmony, light, and positivity, the ten of cups radiates energy. every cup is giving and receiving, sending out beauty and taking in love. this is a card of completion, of balance, of wholeness, and it reminds us to stay open and joyful, sharing our blessings with those around us and seeing the good everywhere.

i'm not typically known as a positive beacon of colorful light (my power cards below back me up on this), but the sense of karma and balance here is impossible to deny. and remembering how much i love the people in my life, how i try to offer kindness and support to those that need it, makes me hopeful that if i can continue to be positive and loving, i will receive that back. with only a few exceptions, when i've come out (which for me is always scary, every single time, to every single person) i've been accepted with open arms. friends and strangers alike have made me feel like i belong, and remembering their generosity gives me strength too.

3 & 4. my main sources of personal power

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seeing the devil and the hermit as my cards of personal power is, frankly, hilarious. these are some big, powerful cards, and while i imagine plenty of others might be horrified by them, these boys feel just right to me.

let's start with the devil. i think it's easy to recoil at the sight of this card, but i'm not afraid of his energy. as a scorpio and a water sign, there's always a bit of darkness, mystery, wickedness present in me. i don't seek out evil, but i definitely live in the grey areas, trying to see all sides, working the angles. and the devil can help us to challenge our assumptions, look at things differently, try to avoid snap judgements. temptation doesn't have to be bad, as long as you understand it. making your own choices can be a strong path, one that may look wrong to others but feels right for you. and indulging can be a beautiful thing, as long as it doesn't take over.

i can also see this card as a reference to difficulties in my life, from my very conservative, religious upbringing to my severe depression to my challenges as a married bisexual woman to my unusual sleeping problems. i've definitely had my feet in the fire, had to resort to deception and denial in order to keep myself safe, had to make impossible choices that weren't always the right ones. but it's made me stronger IMG_0361and more powerful than i was before. and while no one chooses to go through difficult things, the end result can be something wonderful.

my second strength is the hermit, a card i love. i'm definitely an introvert, someone who prefers intimate gatherings to giant parties, someone who prefers a book and a glass of wine to a loud venue, someone who needs a lot of personal time to recharge and consider. the hermit trusts his own inner light, relies on it to reveal the path he should follow. and while i do need the love and support of others sometimes, i've had to face most of my challenges alone. no one can make me sleep, or not hurt myself, or change my identity to something more "acceptable." no one can take away my past hurts or my present fears or my future challenges. just like now - no one else can come out for me. i have to do this myself, on my own strength, in my own way.

 

5. how to tap into that power to build confidence

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the fool, another card i haven't worked with before. represented in the wild unknown as a baby bird, eager to take his first steps away from his secure nest, and speaks of new beginnings, spontaneity, potential, and inexperience. this bird is excited but naive, with no idea what is ahead. she exists entirely in the present. the future is limitless, sparkling with possibility. as carrie mallon says, "this card speaks of pure, unbridled potential. in order for that potential to take shape, risks are required. taking a leap doesn’t necessarily guarantee a favorable outcome. but if you never leap, you remain stuck on the precipice, never fully immersing yourself in all that life has to offer."

there's a lot to unpack here. but something that i immediately noticed is that the devil and the hermit are both stationary, whether standing in flames or retreating into a shell. they're self-aware, sure of themselves, sometimes to their detriment. the fool, however, is moving forward, even if it's into a completely unknown place. she's about action, taking that big leap, being open and ready and saying yes. she may be young and inexperienced, but she also isn't shackled by fear or expectations. if i can look to that trust and love and beauty from the ten of cups, and channel the strength and assurance from my power cards, perhaps it'll give me what i need to take that big step forward.

6. something i can do right now

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so what do i do? the ace of pentacles is all about new beginnings and growth, planting a seed and letting it take root. this card reminds us to stay grounded and consistent, to commit to the process, to activate the resources we have and the ones we may have forgotten.

aces are always brimming with potential. and this ace of the earth, with its stable growth rings and blooming branches and tough outer layer, speaks to me of strength and balance. i need to remember that my letters are the start of something, rather than the end - i'm beginning a conversation based on truth and honesty, and need to keep faith in the process. i have resources - supportive friends, a wonderful therapist, an online community, and my beloved cards. they can give me strength and courage, and help me remember why i'm doing this at all.

this is a fascinating, complicated, challenging spread. but it reflects so much of who i am, what i need, and why i'm pushing myself to come out to my family. i'm grateful for the wisdom here, for the honesty and difficulties presented by the cards.

time to write some letters.

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spreading fire

today's card gave me the courage to finally do what i've been talking about for weeks - post about my (bi)sexuality on facebook. and while it is just the start (and in many ways the easiest step of project: finish coming out), i'm hopeful that this will give me courage and strength to take on what's next.IMG_0315 thank you, mother of wands.

fiery, proud, vibrant, determined, courageous, independent, strong, charismatic, and inspiring. this queen is a force of nature, fierce and self-assured. she is not afraid to fight for what she believes in, is confident in who she is and what she stands for, and is deeply grateful for the people around her. i love these lines from carrie mallon"she holds her values dear to her heart and isn’t afraid to live in a way that lines up with her moral code. she doesn’t do anything halfway – she’s in it to win it. she pours all of her love, originality and unique energy into everything she does."

i so often talk about the court of cups and the high priestess, but i deeply admire the mother of wands. she's so brave, so bold, so fearless - not reckless or inconsiderate, but sure of herself in a way that gives her power and strength in the face of adversity. and of course she's not perfect - she can be prone to stubbornness, and her intensity and determination can be off-putting sometimes. but that's the kind of fire i need right now, and i'm grateful for the positive energy and the mentorship of this beautiful woman. i'm also thankful for this powerful piece on queering the queen of fire.

this is a step that's just for me. i don't anticipate hundreds of comments or thousands of likes - as of right now, my little status only has about 20 likes, and that is completely okay. i needed to know that i was strong enough to stand alone, to speak my truth, and to own my identity.

and i am.