Tarot Recall: A Visionary Exercise for the Present

Prompts Against Anxiety #36 | from Laurence Ross, a Baltimore-based writer and educator. A frequent contributor to BmoreArt, he has also published his essays in magazines and literary journals such as Pelican Bomb, the Georgia ReviewBrevity, and the Huffington Post. In 2020, he curated a visual art exhibition at Woodland Pattern, titled Tarot: The (Re)Making of a Language.



Working with the Tarot, I avoid prediction. Prediction and prophesy can feel limiting, restrictive, anxiety-inducing; certainty regarding the future can lead to dogmatic thinking or pedantic monologues. When my mother had my cards read as an infant, the cards predicted I would grow up to become a priest—a future, like an arranged marriage, from which I fled. I prefer to think of Tarot as a means of optimism, as a means of seeing possibility in the present.
As a writer, when I try to clearly envision the end of a piece, my curiosity in the beginning and the middle dissipates. My attention to my surroundings becomes slack; I lose interest in the joys of finding my way.
I don’t want to know where I am going when I begin writing an essay—not really. I want to revel in doubt and the infinite possibilities contained within the not-knowing. As Phillip Lopate claims, “The essay’s job is to track consciousness; if you are fully aware of your mind you will find your thoughts doubling back, registering little peeps of ambivalence or disbelief.” In other words, recording the journey of the mind—which is hardly ever linear—is the aim of the whole enterprise. Skepticism is welcome. If I know the end from the beginning, if I am simply moving from A to B, what is there to figure out?
I write this prompt on the vernal equinox, the cue for spring in the northern hemisphere. We are collectively at a beginning, at so many beginnings. As daylight progressively increases, you might feel a surge of energy. You might feel the gumption to start a new project. Or you might clear the clutter off the desk to make way for—to make way for what, exactly?
Tarot, as a tool, is a deck of prompts. Like a director supplying an actor with a beginning of a forgotten line, the Tarot often reveals to us what we already knew. Knowledge we had stored away. The archetypes, the lessons, the stages of life we knew from experience would circle round again but often (too often) lose sight of in the dark of winter. To take action, we all need a reminder from time to time.



Using an online card generator or a Tarot deck of your own, draw one card. Does this card cue a memory? Perhaps the memory cued is one that is not explicitly your own. The card might cue a story told by a friend, the detail of an artwork, the bridge of a song, a scene from a novel, the line of a poem, the climax of a film.

Write down the memory. Be mindful to acknowledge all the senses—not only what we can see with our eyes. The four suits in the tarot can be aligned with our intellect, our passions, our emotions, and our bodies. They can serve as a reminder (and a structure) to regard ourselves more wholistically in our writing.

Turn back to the image of the Tarot card and try to describe this image with words. If there are figures, note their facial expressions, their body language. Is the figure satisfied, impatient, cunning, awestruck? If objects or animals appear in the image, what connotations do they carry for you? If there are symbols or patters on the card you drew, count and compare. Are the embellishments and backgrounds symmetrical or irregular? Is the mood inviting or foreboding, energetic or at rest? What color is the background of the card? What ideas or emotions do you associate with that color?

Now compare the written memory to the written description of the Tarot card. What congruencies can you find? Where are the points of departure? What happens when you apply the narrative of the memory to the image of the card?
The aim here is to use the Tarot card as lenses through which to view the memory—or vice versa. Similar to creating a metaphor, you want to lean one idea against another in the hope that new (or remembered) understanding will emerge. Our experiences—and the cards—are full of resonances, and if we look closely, patterns surface.
Record your findings. Shape them into poem, lyric prose, or fictive fragment as you please.

A common challenge of Tarot echoes a common challenge of the writer: to embrace paradox rather than seek easy resolution. We can be both motivated and exhausted, frightened and brave. A divided self seems incredibly human; our capacity to hold these multiplicities can be one of our greatest assets. Tarot and writing are both means of making sense, of finding moments of understanding in these in-between spaces.
William Blake wrote in “Auguries of Innocence”: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.” To see one thing in another suggests our experience of time is not linear. I will see a clam knife and recall my grandmother; I will see a centipede and recall deceit; I will see a crow and recall the warmth of the sun on my skin. I will draw a card and recognize a familiar face or feeling or truth—the past welling up in the present, causing me to regard the future just a bit differently. And in this way, the future is not set in stone but fluctuating, fluid.

Prompts Against Anxiety is sponsored by Milwaukee Public Library, an anchor institution that helps patrons read, learn, and connect—to our resources and our community. Now more than ever, stay connected, stay home, and stay safe. 

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