Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

It's all in the cards


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Modern Tarot by Michelle Tea; HarperElixir, $22.99

In these turbulent times of uncertainty and restlessness, sometimes it can relieve our existential pressures to bestow our fates and futures into the hands of divinatory intervention. Celebrated Los Angeles-based author Michelle Tea recognizes this need and further flexes her impressive and award-winning literary versatility with Modern Tarot, a contemporary version of the art of Tarot. Her book isn't meant as a promotional tool for non-believers, but rather as a helpful, intuitive guide for those who appreciate a distraction that is both artistic, ritualistic, and perhaps most importantly, fun.

Tea writes creatively and passionately about each of the 78 cards in the Tarot system, while cartoonist Amanda Verwey's illustrations provide visually stimulating context and appropriately enhance the entire experience of learning about the Tarot system, what it means, and how it can be incorporated into one's personal life.

Having read Tarot cards since she was 15, Tea, puts her own past, present, and personal impressions into describing the three-sectioned system: the Major Arcana, the Minor Arcana, and the Court Cards. She describes the Major hierarchy as "a procession of archetypes beginning with the inquisitive, risk-taking Fool, and ending with the triumph of the World." The Minor Arcana involves less grandiose movements broken down into four suits: Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles. Tea emerges as a fanciful, knowledgeable, and outspoken escort through this wild, wonderful otherworld.

The author incorporates many amusing and wholly appropriate anecdotes into her explanatory material, as well as open and honest personal opinions about what kind of meaning the cards have in today's world from her perspective. This commentary energizes the material, transforming it from ancient, mystical soothsaying and magical thinking into modern, practical magic. Tea's personal voice is the best part about this book: forthright, direct, and effortlessly insightful. This is evident in her aside on performing spells: "I have no idea if any of it works or if it just makes me feel better, but I figure I'm no worse off than the rest of humanity with our shambling spiritual hopes and gestures."

At nearly 400 pages, the book is not skimpy on details or useful advice. For instance, Tea gets hardcore when discussing the 10 of Wands card (related to the burden of responsibility), counseling those for whom this appears in their reading with tough love. "You need to go on a NO bender," she writes, "that is, start saying no to all the people, places, and things that are sucking your energy."

As a bonus, at the end of each section are spells that readers can incorporate into their daily lives to enhance their experiences, comprehend a particularly confounding situation, or put the herbs and spices in their kitchen cabinet to beneficial use.

Readers don't need to have a distinct interest or devout belief in the Tarot system to enjoy this book. Tea describes how each card in the system and its purpose can apply directly to each of our lives. There are lessons to be learned within these pages, and sage reminders about how to sanctify our bodies, nurture our well-being and souls, and synchronize all of them in harmony.

Tea did a 10-card Tarot reading for the city of San Francisco for KQED this summer, and the results were humorous, harrowing, and thoroughly entertaining. The reading found that the city and its multicultured, multilayered residents unsurprisingly suffer from overwork ("All work and no play makes Jack a dull town,") and a loss of interpersonal connection ("San Francisco is our mother, and all of us her children. Let's start taking better care of her and of each other.")

Tea, who calls herself a "casual witch", magnificently ushers this medium into the modern mainstream with a relatable, straightforward approach that introduces, instructs, enchants, and demystifies the mystical world of the Tarot.

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