Struggling Lovers

Civil Rights, Art, and Tarot together at the Seattle Art Museum

They say the Lovers card is about choice, which means it is equally about consequence. That often overlooked corollary of this tarot card is, for me, the central take-away from Robert Colescott’s paintings currently on exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. (The exhibit, Figuring Historyruns until Sunday, May 13th 2018). Thanks to Colescott, the American struggle for civil rights will forever more inform my understanding of the Lovers card, and vice-versa.

A Visual Parallel

Because of the composition, the connection is most obvious in Natural Rhythm: Thank you Jan Van Eyck, from 1976 (below, left).

Riffing off the iconic 15th century painting by Hans Van Eyck, Colescott seems to say: Here’s a marriage to consider: Black and White in America. How do you like me now? With a single visual change – the skin tone of the female figure – Colescott opens a door from this composition to the struggle for civil rights in America. SAM’s Modern art curator, Catharina Manchande, says: “Changing the woman’s skin color to black raises issues about power dynamics, gender, and race.” I’ll say. That this is done so effectively in a visual language is the hallmark of a good artistic encounter. It feels similar to that “aha” moment in a good tarot reading. (The contrasting tarot image above is from the Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative tarot deck).

A tarot aside: Clients tend to give happy cheers when the Lovers card turns up in tarot readings. This isn’t a happy romantic card, I explain. It is about commitment, for better and for worse. Richer and poorer. Oppressing and oppressed. Choice and consequence. Still, clients express a flush of victory — it will be different for us!

Back to SAM

The first parallel I notice with the Lovers card is in the 1969 painting, Night and Day, You Are the One (below, left), which is displayed on the 2nd floor of the museum, before the larger exhibit upstairs.

Here the figures are two women and a child, reminiscent of the Lovers card from the 18th century Marseilles deck (right). (Colescott’s detail is difficult to see in my snapshot, especially since so much of this painting is affected by the texture. Go see the real thing if you can.) The child completes the triad typical in the Lovers card: two humans and one spirit. The male figure from the Marseilles card (omitted in later versions of the Tarot), is us — the viewers — looking in. The traditional tarot interpretation says that this man is in the position to choose between two desirable opposites. And while everything about the two female figures seems incongruous in Colescott’s painting, the women are connected like night and day. How can we move forward without fearing each other? How can we both exist, with equal stature, on the same canvas? How can we be equally revered by the viewer, and by one-another?

Almost too much to take

The final piece that screams Lovers to me is almost too powerful for me to be near for more than a few minutes at a time. I return to this room several times, trying not to overhear the incredibly personal reactions being shared in the crowd. The painting is: A Cruise to Southern Waters, 1988.

Colescott cruise 1988What slays me about this painting is how it incorporates the issue of aging – another inevitable aspect of the Lovers card that tends to fall into the shadows. The reading glasses! The dentures! Lust and death! Imagine this image turning up in a tarot reading about your romantic future. Would you cheer?


Surrounded by Colescott’s work, I feel The Lovers in terms of struggle, longevity, and the impossibility of ever escaping history. I feel different tarot connections in the works of Kerry James Marshall and Mikaline Thomas, the two other artists in the Figuring History exhibit. Do you see tarot in their works? Share your associations below.


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Tarot Workout: A Longing Heart

My Tarot Workouts are based on real-life readings, minus the identifying details. Add them to your Sunday puzzle routine! If you want even more exercise, search for “Tarot Workouts” on my blog.

A Longing Heart

‘Candace’ asks, “Will I ever reunite with my ex?” You design a simple 4-card spread, which loosely mirrors the center of the Celtic Cross:

4 card visual alternate cropped

CARD 1 (Overall energy between them): Knight of Wands, reversed
CARD 2 (Opportunity for better or worse): 10 of Wands
CARD 3 (What direction are they headed?): Death
CARD 4 (Lesson from the universe): Queen of Wands

Using the Modern Spellcaster’s Tarot, you draw the following cards, placed all upright here for you to see clearly:


What do you say to Candace?

Continue reading “Tarot Workout: A Longing Heart”

Putting the Trumps in Order

(Twice a month, Present Day Tarot hosts a Tarot Salon for tarot readers, students and enthusiasts. This essay was written in preparation for a Tarot Salon on the subject of the Major Arcana suit. If you are in or near Seattle and want to attend the Salon, you can sign up here.)

The Major Arcana (AKA “Trump”) Cards

Tarot de Marseilles le Mat

The Major Arcana suit consists of 22 cards. Nowadays, they are typically numbered from Zero (the Fool) to 21 (the World). But in the early decks the Majors were given no numbers or established order. As the deck developed over time, the Majors fluctuated in name and number value.

The numbers on these cards may or may not matter in your tarot readings, depending on your approach. However, as you learn the cards, knowing and playing with the order can be very helpful.

Etteilla FolieThe most common explanation for the order of the Trump suit today is to see it as a linear story called the Fool’s Journey. It shows the Fool, an innocent soul, falling to earth and encountering each card one-by-one. For me, this story has no narrative pizzazz – which seems a waste for a subject that is so rich in story-telling potential. But getting to know it is like learning the basics of grammar. I combed through some YouTube options dramatizing the Fool’s Journey, and chose these videos (with thanks to the people who took the time to make them), because they are the shortest. You can see the story straight-up, with a British accent, and wouldn’t you know, as a rap. And that’s enough time on that.

An Added Dimension

Author Rachel Pollack is credited with a simple and popular restructuring of the story that adds a helpful layer of meaning. Holding the Fool card aside, she maintains the standard order but splits the remaining 21 cards into 3 rows of 7. Each row indicates a different level of mastery for the Fool as he/she travels from innocence to awareness. The Fool first masters the physical world (Majors 1-7), then his unconscious world (Majors 8-14), and then finally, the spiritual world (Majors 15-21). Here is an image of the Rider-Waite-Smith cards placed in Pollack’s order:

Rider Waite Major Suit

The Best, (and most difficult to describe), for Last

The most helpful way I have ever seen the Majors ordered is by the prolific tarot scholar, Gareth Knight. In his 1991 book, The Magical World of the Tarot: Fourfold Mirror of the Universe, he pictures the whole deck as a giant, floating building with four halls. The halls are energized by the work of the Magician, guarded by four dominant Trump cards, and peopled by their closest cousins in the Major Arcana. The four halls correspond to the elements, and are gateways to the suits of the Minor Arcana. This is my favorite and most often misplaced tarot book, and Knight spends a good portion of it building a layered vision of the cards. I will condense his vision (as I remember it) into a quick overview graphic, below. I look forward to discussing it more with you at the Tarot Salon!

Tarot Trumps restructured


The tarot cards not cited above are two early versions of the Fool: Le Mat from the Tarot de Marseilles and La Folie from the Book of Thoth, also known as the Etteilla Tarot.


A One-Card Spread

“I’m struggling with my self-esteem,” a friend declares. “Where is my goodness?”

She pulls the 2 of Pentacles, reversed.Version 2

This card is about juggling small details and decisions. Yes, my friend is a busy woman, and the jaunty pose and rolling waves show the effort required to keep balance while multitasking. Aces can be high or low, but the 2 is indisputably a little number. As such, it runs the risk of being thought of as less significant than other cards. But consider the role of the tarot 2s. Their job is to advance the Ace energy, which is infinite and intangible. If the earth sign Ace is an endless field of potential, the 2 is the single farmer who chooses the crop and commits to its care. Like in the daily tasks we perform at work or for home, the energetic action is a much bigger deal than we give ourselves credit for. The 2s work to make divine potential come to Earth. But the effort can be overwhelming. It’s easy to imagine this taking a toll on one’s self-esteem, especially when the card shows in reverse.

So I say to my friend,

Your goodness is that you are trying and you’re trying hard. Struggle is not failure. It’s the first step to something important that you do not know yet. Your goodness is in caring enough to walk an invisibly rocky road. It is internal. It feels so serious, but look at your silly red hat and remind yourself to laugh. Look through the eyes of your higher self. The things in front of you are not the actual things you’re grappling with. The forces that you are trying to move are much greater than what you see, and they are divine. So, while you feel buffeted and beaten up, you can know that your goodness is in your efforts to bring meaning to life.

On a practical note, I point out that the next card in the tarot deck is the 3 of Pentacles — a card of collaboration and productivity. Do you feel alone in your efforts? Can you share your vision and labor with someone else?


Present Day Tarot StudioAre you Tarot-curious in Seattle? Learn, discuss, and practice tarot with me at the Tarot Salon! For those of you in the great world beyond Seattle, please sign up for my email list or follow my blog for other Present Day Tarot offerings.


The card above is, of course, by the amazing Pamela Colman Smith for the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck, created and published in the early 1900s when the artist was 17.

Tarot Workout: Reconciliation

Tarot Workouts are short, real-life case studies to help you exercise your tarot-reading muscle. Enjoy this as a sample reading. Or, if you are a tarot student, read the question, check out the cards, and then step away from the essay to formulate your own response. Read the end later to see how my response compares to your own.

The Question

A man — I’ll pick the name Xavier — wrote to ask if his ex would return to reconcile after a fight. He gave me no more information than that his ex is a man whom he loves dearly.

This is the kind of question that often brings people to a tarot reader. It is wonderful because it is heart-felt, and tricky because it is a yes-no question largely focused on someone other than the questioner. I opened up the question and gave it a twist to allow for Xavier’s free will to enter while honoring the spirit of his inquiry. I asked, “show me this relationship’s most likely next stage, with a guidance card for Xavier.”

The Layout


  • CARD 1 (Covering energy) This is like the card in the center of a Celtic Cross spread. It represents the overall feeling of the time in question.
  • CARD 2 (Crossing energy) This is like the second card at the center of the Celtic Cross. We often say that it “represents the opportunity that shows itself for better or worse.”
  • CARD 3 (Guidance) What it sounds like.

The Cards

  1. 10 of Pentacles, reversed
  2. Princess of Pentacles
  3. The Empress, reversed

Present Day Tarot reading workout

I used the Light and Shadow Tarot deck by Brian Williams and Michael Goepferd. I love the bold block prints and energy in this deck. However, the cards are oversized and printed on very tacky card stock, which makes them unusually difficult to handle. I reserve this deck for email readings to avoid the inevitably awkward situation of having a client struggle to shuffle the cards.

***** Tarot students, stop here and formulate your own answers ***** Continue reading “Tarot Workout: Reconciliation”


Tarot Royalty at the Conservatory

To get to know the tarot suit of Swords, I suggest spending an afternoon in the cactus room of a plant conservatory near you. I recently went to the big glass house in Volunteer Park to soak in the energy of these prickly friends.

Here’s the diminutive Page of Swords, which Benebell Wen describes as, “an aggressive but graceful young woman. She is a strong intellectual, with great capacity for learning, great potential for diplomacy, and likewise, great potential for becoming a fighter.” (Holistic Tarot, p. 202). You go, girl!

Page of Swords cactus

Her sibling, the Knight of Swords, is messier and more reckless, but still has a tender side. Arthur Waite describes him as “riding in full course, as if scattering his enemies. … A prototypical hero of romantic chivalry.” (The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, p. 230). Angeles Arrien says this card “represents the inspired mind that does not want to be limited, restricted, or restrained in any way.” (The Tarot Handbook, p 111).

Knight of Swords cactus

The Queen! I found her in the most mammary of the Mammillaria! She has order, finesse and beauty, with a biting sense of humor. Most textbook definitions describe her as angular and refined, but mine has an additional layer of irony. Isn’t this the design my grandmother once stitched on a pillow? What does that say about the Queen of Swords through time?

Queen of Swords cactus

How does she differ from the King? The King of Swords is someone who knows what he does well and does it repeatedly. “…Someone of authority who is on guard all the time” (Thorson’s Way of the Tarot, p 121). Up close, you can see that each leaf of this mighty aloe holds an imprint of the leaf that grew before it, informing its shape and determining a pattern that won’t easily change. Until the spring, when a towering pink flower shoots up from its center, surprising us all.

King of Swords cactus

My prickly d8I can spend hours in the conservatory! All the tarot cards can be found there — sometimes distinctly, but often overlapping in thought-provoking ways. This particular outing was inspired by my lovely d’8, disguised here as the matronly Queen of Pentacles. She took me to this earthy place for my virgo birthday, knowing I would revel in it. (Thanks, Rojo!)

If you want to see the card images referred to in this essay, check out my Facebook post.



Tarot Questions

If you could know the answer to all your questions, what questions would you ask?

Version 2“What’s going to happen to me?”

That would get old fast.

I bet you’d move quickly to “how can I…?” questions. How can I get the most from this situation? How can I understand what’s going on? How can I make the world a better place?

Not that all tarot questions need to be lofty. Personal curiosities are a huge part of our every day, and are often what draws people to tarot. But try shifting a question like, “will she go out with me?” to, “what can I do to better my chances?” Then see which question yields the more empowering information.

Creative and empowering questions make the best use of the Tarot and distinguish it from fortune-telling. And — the truly beautiful thing! — the more you explore what questions you really want to ask, the more likely you are to find rich, meaningful answers that will have a positive impact on your life.

The World card is the final Major Arcana card in the tarot deck. It is generally said to stand for awareness, completion, and earned wisdom. The World isn’t all-knowing; she just knows what questions to ask. The image above is from the Fountain Tarot.

Do you have an empowering question in mind? Contact me for a reading! Email and check out my website for more information.

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