“A Wish, A Witch, and the Tarot”

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« Δε χρειαåζεται να θυμηθειåς. Το ξερουμε. »

—Γιαåννης Ριåτσος, « Ρωμιοσυåνη »

“No need to recollect. We know.”

—Giannis Ritsos, “Greekness”

The man lay prostrate on the ground with his face turned away from me, certainly dead, with ten swords piercing his back. I laughed. The irony. The short bout of laughter rinsed my insides the grotesque way that dark humor often does, expelling pain and truth. The sky above him gaped like a black hole, and his pink palms turned up, exposed, like the soft belly of a dead lamb. 

“The Ten of Swords,” the tarot reader explained. 

“Yeah,” I said, “that’s pretty fucking accurate.” My relationship had just ended, and this was the card we’d assigned to interpret what it meant. 

The tarot reader gave a low chuckle. She looked at me with a mix of sympathy and pity that reminded me of Joan Didion’s line from “Goodbye to All That”: Was I ever that young? I am here to tell you that yes, once she was, and now so was I, and I can also tell you that sometimes I only remembered because of the way people looked at me. 

The forty-year-old tarot reader wore leggings with rainbow triangles, not unlike the Pink Floyd album cover—also not unlike the rest of us at the yoga studio. We all dressed like a cackle of little girls rediscovering the fun in fashion, marketed to us, of course, by a New Age feminism. (Didn’t fashion equal liberation?) My attention went to the purple leopard headband that flattened oily strands of her black hair. They stuck out from under her ears. Who knew what her week had been like? Having made myself self-conscious, I ran a hand through my own hair, trying to remember when I last showered. A day in those days seemed like a lifetime. Time was like a weighted jacket wearing me down at every turn of the hour. 

“Swords represent air,” she said. “Corresponding to our thoughts. Our mental space. How they affect our daily life. As you climb up the suit of swords, the more intense that card becomes, the more out of balance that element is in your life.” 

“So I’ve maxed out,” I said. 

A conservative smile. Not being too definitive was the mark of a good tarot reader, I thought, and an astrologist and a meteorologist. “The Ten of Swords can be paralyzing,” she said. 

The card did not jar me. Cognizant of my emotional and physical stress at the time, it was merely a consolation of acknowledgment. I see you. It was the combination of things that robbed me of my stability: I was finishing a degree, writing a thesis, mapping out a career, preparing to move back with my parents, jobless, and in the midst of it, saying goodbye to a person I called the love of my life—let us call him LL for Lost Love, a concept now more than a person. My mind was in overdrive, and my body was, in manifestations of illness, collapsing under the weight of it all. 

If I were a trickster and a rebel I would carry the Ten of Swords around with me for when people extended that tedious formality, How are you? Then I would pull it from my sleeve like a rabbit from a hat and stupefy them and say, This is how I am. Forgoing social invitations might have been easier that way. I avoided crowds because they gave me anxiety and because they engendered talk of transformation and growth, and I loathed that nihilistic, dismissive bore of a consolation: One day, you’ll look back at this and laugh. The only group settings where I was spotted were yoga classes and that pillar of the community, the library—a space, really, as solitary as an attic. It was hard to explain what I needed at the time until I got the Ten of Swords. Without promises or advice, issuing no lecture, simply in earnest anguish and stillness that was almost contemplative, it said, I know how it is. That night when I returned home, I researched tarot. According to a site I can best describe as the SparkNotes of tarot, “Biddy Tarot,” the Ten of Swords represented “painful endings, deep wounds, betrayal, loss, crisis.” I found both comfort and amusement in that last word, “crisis.” A crisis it was indeed. When I considered it a little longer, the word mutated across the synapses of my brain and sparked a memory—that word came tethered to the event that changed so many lives around me: the Greek financial crisis of 2008. I could remember just the moment, too, when the crisis tore a fissure through my family. 

One evening I stood in the dining room of our neoclassical home in downtown Athens, illuminated by the stalactite-like crystals of the antique lamp that reigned over our high-ceilinged house. I recall feeling inordinately small—perhaps an intrusion of hindsight—looking up the ornate crown moldings. They were embellished with leaves and swirls and, in my room, the heads of babies. Mine was the nursery. Staring at our ceilings felt to me a little like staring into a starlit sky in the complete darkness of a village in the mountains, when the night swallowed you like a goldfish. I consider why I was never disturbed by the tiny cupids—maybe it was similar to how people could inhabit haunted houses their entire lives without noticing the ghosts, either by choice or blind spot. Or maybe it was because I’d been conditioned to praise that animated plaster art, taking after my parents who introduced our house to every guest, first, by gesturing proudly towards the ceiling. How easily with a little conscious deliberation an object of admiration could turn into one of horror. 

That night, like any other, my dad ascended the spiraling, wooden staircase that moaned under anyone’s weight but that of our fox terrier, Milou. Whether it was his gait or his face that had betrayed his mood, I don’t remember, but the sight of him drained the joy of my greeting. I had gotten into the habit around the age of thirteen of indulging my curiosity by listening to my parent’s conversations. My dad, a man of few words, dropped his keys onto the metal tray of coins. Without any introduction he told my mom that Greece had officially announced a recession. I stood behind my mom, a little like a baby cupid myself, feeling like I was floating out of context.

Ten years later my dad admitted to me that in 2008 he cried every night, worrying about the taxes he couldn’t pay—taxes that had climbed to claim 60 percent of his salary. He had visions of the bank foreclosing on our house or the government throwing him in jail—he envisioned us, cold and hungry, on the streets of the neighborhood where he grew up, living in the dilapidated apartment left by my grandmother. The same apartment whose walk-up every few months flooded with dead roaches. 

Feeling like I’d overstayed my welcome in a silent exchange between adults, I scurried back into my room and sat on my bed. I stared at the delicate, flowered light fixture above my head that gave off a yellowish-salmon glow. I thought about the look on my parent’s faces, and I realized why it was familiar. It was like the frightened, conspiratorial look my brother and 

I exchanged when we broke that emerald-green vase by playing volleyball indoors. It said, What the hell do we do now? 

When LL left me, amidst the tumult of an already overwhelming intersection in my life, I must have declared an inner crisis because all I could think, on a loop, was What the hell now? 

Those months, when I sat self-exiled in my own apartment, when I drank coffee instead of water, when I prepared coffee instead of food, when I worked, worked, worked and tried to bargain my way out of the heaviness I felt—during that time—I caught myself, like the families of lost soldiers after WWII at the peak of spiritualism, sincerely speaking to LL in my one-bedroom apartment. I would have given anything for a suggestion of communication. I would have given anything for a ghostly rap on the wall. 

After I dimmed the lights and lowered my voice, seated on the floor of my apartment by the open window, I asked myself and the tarot, What has ever drawn any woman to the occult? 

Along with housekeeping and childbearing and hair curling, women were handed a job thought to be exclusive to their gender that they then harnessed to become influencers and artists. Women would enter trances and thrill and chill entire audiences. Women would, as mediums, interpret messages from ghosts as influential as Plato and write entire books dictated by the greats just as muses once dictated to them. Women were claiming stages in underground, abandoned mausoleums and cemeteries as much as grand salons of the educated and privileged. It was through the occult that women like Madame Blavatsky, Founder of Modern Theosophy and Russian Occultist, and Georgie Hyde-Lees, Medium, Member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, and Writer, transcended the boundaries dictated to them to navigate wider realms of possibility. 

Owning a tarot deck had a strange influence on me. I would get sudden urges to fan out the cards, wear crystals bigger than my knuckles so they  would knock against one another, and sip mountain tea gathered by old Greek women in the villages—those women of the earth. I was ready to unravel the world’s mysteries and all from the convenience of my unswept floor. My mother walked into the room and, curious as a cat and quiet as a mouse as she was, glimpsed over my shoulder at what I was doing. 

“Maybe hide those from Baba when we get to Greece,” she said. We were travelling to Athens for Christmas. 

I heard my mind wake its defenses. Of course, he would disapprove, I thought. Was it too airy, emotional, feminine, rather than sturdy, rational, masculine? 

“Why?” I asked. “Someone sent me a deck once . . .” She stared at the ceiling trying to remember. “I think it was tarot. Maybe it wasn’t. No—I’m pretty sure.” 

“What did Baba do?” I asked, to keep her on track. “He lost it. He started yelling to get them out of the house. He was shouting about how they were sacrilegious. I stuffed them in a drawer somewhere; I think I still have them.” 

When I was in Greece, my dad saw me with my deck. I was sitting in his spot on the couch that carried him through every vacation. 

“Eh! Bebax,”—who knows where dads find nicknames for their daughters—“what are you doing with those silly things?” (Though I am mostly immune to his Greek accent in English, I should say his es sound like hard EHs, like the “e” in elevator.) “I like them,” I said. “I wouldn’t mess around with them.” I waited for him to say more. He gave me a side nod. The kind that signaled he knew more than he let on. I could never tell if he pulled out the side nod because he felt like I wouldn’t understand or because he was simply too bored to open a conversation that would delay his return to his movies. Either way, he shut down, and I secretly resented him for that head tilt. All my life, I felt, he dismissed me with it. 

After multiple rounds of “Whys,” the kind I used to play endlessly with my parents as a child, exasperating them and disappointing myself in the realization that my parents did not know everything, my dad finally told me something real. “I actually know a lot about tarot.” 

“You do?” I said. 

“I dated a girl once. She was crazy about them. She did the medium thing, the crystal ball, long fingernails, read you your cards, all of it. That’s who I learned from. I can also read coffee—Greek coffee, of course.” Growing up with parents who owned a café, my dad worked as a waiter gathering drachma and stories from the old folk. “A poor kid has to occupy his time somehow,” he had told me once. 

“What happened?” I asked. “She had a friend, a guy who was into this stuff too, but crazier. Really into the cards, I’m telling you, into all of it. She convinced me to get a reading from him, and I did. Everything he predicted came true. Everything.” His overgrown black eyebrows, snowy at the bridge of his nose (from stress dating back to 2008), rose here. He looked me in the eye. “He went crazy, got thrown into an asylum.” I cringed at his word choice but decided not to correct him from fear it would annoy him out of telling me the ending. “I took off as fast as I could. Never saw them again. I think he committed suicide.” 

I inferred from his story what I never would have expected: the cards had scared him. I could see how in the context of his religious upbringing fortune-telling might have seemed sacrilegious—I felt my defenses rest. I cannot guess what the cards predicted for him. From what I know now, though, I can say the cards did what they do best: they became a mirror. They forced a confrontation, an inner channeling of anxieties, traumas. Whatever his cards or predictions, they forced him to grapple with what was then the uncontested foundation of his beliefs, perhaps, the core of his family history, perhaps his religion and superstitions, a past that he carried—that was intergenerational—that, consciously or not, defined him. 

An undisclosed yet accepted truth of spiritualism was that where the body is physically limited, the mind can venture. Inexhaustible in its resources as it is. While a society ruled by men limited women to roles designated as feminine, during occult practices—when the boundaries were effaced—women could become more than they were assigned, more than they might have imagined they could ever be.

Ever since I was little, I fretted in my sleep and harbored nightmares. I went through periods of recurring nightmares that if laid out and arranged could probably map a fairly accurate succession of the stages of my affective and cognitive life. It would be the much darker version of the child developmental stages Freud or Piaget framed into pyramids. An inversion similar to how the fixture of a child’s party, the clown, became a universal human phobia. Nightmare one: something is hiding in the closet. Nightmare two: something is hiding under the bed. Three: an intruder; he climbs the rickety stairs. Four: he kills your dog. The sequence became a cycle that made its rounds less often over the years but nevertheless remembered to pop in for a visit.

With my history of interrupted sleep, it was no wonder my dream were disrupted by LL’s leaving. Whereas before him I preferred falling asleep on my back, open and receptive, afterwards, sleep only came when all of my vitals were secured: belly, lungs, heart to the mattress. Like the Ten of Swords, if I were to be stabbed, I would at least control where. My new recurring nightmare was that I could not speak. Adults, friends, strangers would all gather in my childhood home under the cherubs, in merriment, to drink wine, often when I was in bed. When I confronted them, they towered over me while I remained short and stunted; they inquired after my unrest and demanded I explain myself. I felt my voice trying to claw its way up my throat like a rat frantically spinning its wheel. My voice would not rise above a whisper. Exhausting myself, finally, I abandoned all effort. Aloof and unmoved by my withdrawal, the others receded into conversation that rose and fell, delighted, like the belly of a well-fed emperor. 

When I first encountered the occult, in my tarot reading at the yoga studio, I felt as if I had located parts of my lost voice. I felt both buoyant and anchored; I occupied a space of contradiction, feeling like I’d discovered a well-kept secret. Promise of magic bloomed in me as it had when I was a little girl. Is this what it might be like, what it might feel like to be a witch? I wondered. 

With this in mind, I asked the well-known tarot reader, Lindsay Mack, what it meant when she self-identified as a witch. A witch, she said, is “a keeper, complete, of the earth.” A witch, she said, is “awake.” And at that word, I felt the eyes of my Woman’s soul pop open. Had it been the same way for Georgie Hyde-Lees and Madame Blavatsky? 

Lindsay Mack told me that all she had ever wanted, ever since she was a little girl, was to understand herself. She bought her first tarot deck at twelve years old in Montclair, New Jersey. “I grew up in chaos, abuse, and violence. I sought out whatever made me make do with what I had. Biochemistry and psychology comforted me.” Mack experienced PTSD episodes in her twenties during which tarot was her anchor. When she turned thirty, she was asked to read tarot at a store in Brooklyn. Soon after, she founded “Tarot for the Wild Soul,” combining all the tools she had gathered over the course of her lifetime working with holistic health, healing, mindfulness, and psychology. Taking from her own experience, Mack teaches how tarot can help heal trauma. Her teachings echo the archetypal psychoanalysis of Carl Jung, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Women Who Run With the Wolves), even Maureen Murdoch (The Heroine’s Journey), though she doesn’t identify with them as much as she does with mindfulness teacher Tara Brach and Michelle Sinnette, a scholar of biochemistry and pharmacology and practitioner of psychotherapy who works at the intersection of mindfulness and spirituality. Despite her influence in the tarot community today, Mack’s method at the beginning seemed quite unorthodox. 

“I got a lot of shit from a lot of people at first,” she admitted to me, “no one knew what the hell I was doing. And then, suddenly, everyone was doing it.” 

To her, tarot is not about the future—“If you want someone to dink you around, I am not the person for you.” It would be so limiting to think of tarot in terms of fortune-telling, she says, going off on a tangent that relays her passion. “The future is not fixed. If I stay in the present, it can guide me to the truth.” The aim of tarot is to become expansive. “It is a tool for the present,” she insists. 

Readings are “committed energetic exchanges,” Mack tells me. “I show up as a mirror in the best way that I can.” She understands—even if I don’t yet—like the mediums of spiritualism, what it is like to receive others’ energies. Only, it’s not about emptying out, or being passive, it’s about consciously embodying a bridge, forging a connection, interpreting without influencing, transcending while remaining fully present to the person across from you. It is about occupying a space that is in-between. Modestly, she tells me, “The cards do the work.” She senses my suspicion, so she adds that one must know, of course, the theory of the cards, too. 

At my request, Mack talks about magic. I ask her to define the terms “intuitive” and “magic”—terms that come loaded from centuries of superstition, evolving religious and spiritual beliefs, and that sacred, convoluted philosophy of the people, folklore. Magic, she says, after thinking for a bit, is an “invisible web of co-creation that happens between us and the universe. It doesn’t have to do with producing anything. It’s mundane. It can happen at any moment, if only you’re open to that two-way communication.” Far from sleight of hand, trickery, or even fantastic ideas, Mack says magic is found in the little “synchronicities” of life. Just the other day, I dreamt of a friend I hadn’t seen in years, and in the morning when I messaged him, he said he had just moved to a new city to begin a new job. “Your dream was right,” he told me. 

As for intuition, Mack explained, it is to have “an ear that is open.” To receive what you hear is intuition. “That is my life,” she tells me. “You have a headache, I have a headache.” 

Maybe if LL and I had been more attuned to our intuition when dating—seen the signs, as they say—we would have noticed that from the beginning our fondest memories involved corners. Diverging directions. 

First there was the corner where Starbucks and the food truck met—an instance of synchronicity—where we ran into each other and truly spoke for the first time, when he complimented my Blue Topaz stud earrings and asked me out. Then there was the corner in my kitchen, by the stove, where we eventually burned the butter because we had no idea what it took for it to brown, the first time that we kissed. Our last memory was in Boston, three months after we broke up, where walking with him in a colder climate, existing under a lighter sky, tingled like a new promise of a deeper love, but all it brought was another instance of parting. When he hugged me at the intersection, I whispered, “I’m proud of you,” and he glanced at my lips, but I did not act because the light was green and my friend was waiting and more so because he did not ask me to stay. Whenever we resolved conflict during our relationship, in the hours discussing emotions, misunderstandings, and ways forward as the sun outside set, he had always communicated under his breath, in his prolonged silences and delayed surrender, a secret wish: if only I would make it easier for him to leave. I didn’t hear it then, his wish, but its echo, like a ripple across my memory, has reached me now. I draw the Three of Pentacles: imagination, birth, artistry, one guide says. LL doesn’t show up in the cards anymore. And I wonder if not with me and if not in the cards, where has he gone? 

I read tarot for my mom one night, during a time that her mother was deteriorating with Parkinson’s, and she had been left to decide the quality of her mom’s life from that point forward. Ever-changing caretakers, paranoid hallucinations, sibling rivalries, a much-unexpected will: an all-too-familiar story that served as grim recognition of an escalating and irreversible condition that in its wake dredged a buried chest of family trauma. She drew an odd hand that night: all court cards, which she and I together interpreted as the three operating figures of this family drama. Afterwards I noticed how she looked downcast. 

“I kinda wished it hadn’t been so accurate,” she said. “I was hoping for something fun, maybe a you’ll-win-a-cruise-soon or something.” 

I knew she knew that wasn’t how it worked; it was her pain speaking, her “wishful thinking” as we call it, to make a heavy thing appear lighter so that it can be chased with a cocktail. Nonetheless, my mom got it right: people still go to tarot readings hoping the cards will reveal some secret destiny or operate as a deus ex machina. That is not their function. All the cards do—I say as if it’s a small thing—is show you yourself. 

When I return from Greece, I pack my suitcase tight with tea. My dad says, every time he leaves Athens, he cries. A man who teases that his young soul is still searching for Ithaca, who moves first to Hungary, then to Dubai to pay off the mortgage of a home we are not living in—with this declaration of kryptonite, he reveals himself to me. It is so intimate, so new a rule in our exchange, that I recoil, because it rings with a sadness I cannot yet place. For years I file away that feeling and morph it into a false justification that I should not return to Greece. “There is nothing for me there,” I tell my pair of blinking parents; “Maybe next year,” I write my friends, getting a little blurry at my white lie. Change is felt before it is seen—I don’t know which part of that equation is harder. The teas line and stack the wall in silver-figured canisters, arranged like a banquet of crowns awaiting their royals. Unsmiling but not unwilling, the cashier lays out rows of teas, scoops out loose leaf mixture, and lets me smell, indulging my questions and “oohs” and “naahs.” This one has star anise and that one has mastic and the other is not fruity, but earthy, Greek mountain tea with chamomile and thyme. Amongst all the customers filing in and out, I am the odd one, buying many little bags rather than one hefty bag of a tested favorite. It is a steal, I think, walking out with my head down. In America, the tea rests in a damp, dark cabinet as if I am waiting for it to age, perhaps even to outlast me. Rather than drink it, more often, I take it out to smell it. Snap goes the seal. One breath, two. More. An emptiness filled. Neatly, like tucking a child in a blanket, I place the bundle back in its nook, knowing I will return. 

Eleni Theodoropoulos’s essay appears in Michigan Quarterly Review‘s Fall 2019 issue. Get your own copy here.