Breathing Space

Why I took up tarot on Christmas Day

Illustration: Penny Whitehouse

For magic-obsessed Caroline O'Donoghue, tarot cards were a great stocking filler. But as she learnt more about the cards, she started to follow them, too

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

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It started on Boxing Day but, really, it had been brewing for a long time before that. A few months, a few years – hell, you could bring it back to my First Holy Communion, if you really wanted to. 

“Draw one card,” I said and I stopped him, worried he wasn’t taking it as seriously as I was. “But think about Glasgow while you do it. Really picture it.” 

“I am.”

“OK. Draw one card.” 

He drew the card and placed it face up on the bed, with all the others. I wrote “Glasgow” on a Post-it Note and stuck it underneath. 

“What does it look like?” I ask, while writing. 

“Not… not good.” 

Gavin has drawn the Ten of Swords, a card which, according to my handbook, is “among the gravest cards in the deck”. I start reading from my manual, already tea-stained despite being one day in my company. 

“It symbolises ruin, ending, sorrow, desolation and despair.” 

“Right,” he says. “I guess we’re not moving to Glasgow.” 

A week ago, we signed our lease, guaranteeing us at our London flat for the next 12 months. Signing it felt good – our first year living together had gone off without a hitch and we were ready to sign up for both another year at this flat and (we hoped) many more years living together. But, while we were certain we wanted to be together, we weren’t altogether sure of where we wanted that together to be. We had both lived in London for five years and were both ready to start looking. We decided that while the career-obsessed, driving momentum of London was something that we initially loved, we were beginning to get tired of it. More importantly, we were tired. 

The problem, I think, is normal. The cards were a twist. My love of ritual and the occult has been a key point for his taking the piss out of me since we met, three years ago, and he bought the deck of Byzantine-inspired tarot cards for me as a stocking filler. “For the superstitious Catholic in you,” he said. I don’t think he realised how obsessed with them I would become – how I would spend all Christmas Day reading his family’s fortunes, teaching myself simple spreads from the back pages of the manual. The rest of the Christmas holidays played out in much the same way: someone would come to our house, and I would insist on reading their fortunes. Manual in one hand, glass of wine in the other. 

There was always a moment when the tone of the reading changed. When the giddy laughs turned to thoughtful, wrinkled brows

The best readings always happened when we asked the cards a question. Going into the new year, my friends were not short of them: how can I move on in my career? Should I settle down in Paris or keep looking? How can I stop feeling so creatively blocked? Will I ever stop feeling so anxious? It was fun and we tried not to take the whole thing too seriously, but there was always a moment when the tone of the reading changed. When the giddy laughs turned to thoughtful, wrinkled brows. 

“This is the Chariot,” I said to my friend Fiona. 

“He looks like a badass.”

“He IS. He is a badass and so are you. He’s charging toward adventure and nothing can stop him.”

“Awesome.” 

“But his horses are… pointing in different directions. They’re not all-the-way tame. Do you feel like you’re being pulled in different directions?” 

Then came the furrow. And Fiona, who I only see a couple of times a year and usually on flying visits, told me that yes, sort of. We flipped over the next couple of cards, which revealed what might be pulling her. And we talked. 

That is, ultimately, the biggest gift of these small printed cards with their funny pictures and strange meanings. They make people talk. They force people to think about their lives and their motives in a new way. This is why, I think, that tarot readers get such a bad name – they are accused of probing their subjects with vague questions, seizing upon their insecurities and then interpreting the cards to meet those observations. It is a fair accusation, because that is exactly what they’re doing. But, to me, that doesn’t make the practice or the message any less valid. The 78 cards detail the vastness of the human experience – from guilt, to love, to insecurity, to resentment, to happiness – as well as the things that play upon our nerves the most. 

Dublin would be a hard slog, with very few rewards. Portugal brought anxiety. York was a disaster

But, back to Boxing Day, and the careful laying out of the cards on my mother-in-law’s bedspread. We stopped at 12 because, realistically, we couldn’t see ourselves going to more than 12 cities in the same year. Glasgow would be disastrous for us, so that got taken out of the running. Dublin would be a hard slog, with very few rewards. Portugal brought anxiety. York was a disaster. 

So, what were we left with? Strangely, our favourites were the ones that the cards seemed to smile on the most: Berlin, a place we were planning to move to before I was offered my job at The Pool, would prove creatively fulfilling for us. In Southampton, we would be very deeply in love. Edinburgh was also a strong possibility and reassured us that we had a friend there. (Which was, oddly, true. My best friend had moved there only a couple of months ago.) Copenhagen, Madrid, Toronto and Manchester were also very strong contenders. Seven cities to visit in 12 months. But no, not just visit – investigate. Twelve months to take a look at the job market, or to see how easy freelancing is from abroad. A year to find out what language we would need to learn, and how hard it would be. A year to see if we have friends in these cities, or, by the same token, to find out how important it is to have friends when you move at all. 

The cards were a way of narrowing down our choices, a way of making us think about what we should expect. But the rest? Well, that’s between us and the next 12 months.

@Czaroline

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Illustration: Penny Whitehouse
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Breathing Space

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