Drawing the Devil and the Death cards

‘I’m no longer tossing off tarot as a crock.’

My pious grandmother always warned me about the dangers of playing cards. Sure, Crazy Eights and Go Fish might seem like innocent pastimes, but shuffling around with kings, queens and knights could get one in a spot of royal trouble. Cards could lead to gambling, which could lead to drinking, which could lead to, well, utter ruin. So instead, she and I played Chinese Checkers. She always won, of course. She was a shark, my grandmother.

And she’d be rolling over in her grave if she knew where I am right now: sitting across from Giselle Urech, a 40-year-old mother of five, who reads tarot for a living in Hamilton. A good living. She charges $75 for a 45-minute session and averages three to four clients a day. At that rate, she could pull in about $75,000 a year - less than a therapist but more than a priest. Urech has a five-star rating on Facebook and teaches tarot at Mohawk College, but in this moment, I don’t believe anyone can predict the future. Truthfully, I think tarot is a crock.

There’s a table laid with a vivid violet cloth between us. The walls of this private back room in her modest house are mauve. A dreamcatcher hangs from the window and a large angel sculpture - with flared wings -  stands in a corner, holding a bowl filled with colourful gemstones. Soft music plays in the background. Urech’s eyes close and her lids flutter. I’m a tarot virgin and don’t know what to expect. In my mind’s eye, I see my grandmother’s stern face. Urech then opens her eyes and turns over two cards: the Three of Swords, which is an image of a heart pierced by three daggers, and the Devil, which shows a masked man with the curled horns of a ram. There’s also a pentagram in the background and flames lick at the edges of the card.

Oh, dear. This can’t be good.

For most people, tarot is either terrible or trite. If you were raised in an ultra religious home like I was, toying with tarot is downright demonic. Others consider it a party game or the pastime of lovelorn women wondering if they’ll ever meet that tall, dark and handsome stranger. It’s tempting to poo-poo this “woo-woo” new age practice, but millions of people the world over have used it as a form of divine direction for centuries. And it’s especially popular among spiritual-but-not-religious folks. Today, Tarot Biddy, the world’s most popular tarot site, has 2 million users a year. There’s even an international annual TarotCon convention and an online Tarot Town social network. A Google search will find you dozens of tarot readers in any city in Canada.

Lots of famous folks, including the poet William Butler Yeats, the painter Salvador Dalí and the psychologist Carl Jung, depended on tarot to guide them in their work.

Some of my smartest friends, like Jennifer Kaye, use tarot, too. “I don’t believe tarot has predictive powers, but I do think it’s an interesting tool to gain more self-understanding,” says Kaye, a graphic designer with two arts degrees and an MBA. “And reading cards for friends can allow you to have a deeper conversation that you might not otherwise have. It offers a sense of intimacy and connection.”

My pal Marlise, a successful banker and lapsed Catholic, has been seeing Jane Vandrus, a medium in Brantford, Ont., twice a month for the past four years. Tarot has helped her to work through a career change and deal with her daughter’s mental illness. “Jane is more of a ‘truthsayer’ than a soothsayer,” Marlise says. “She’s calmed my fears around my daughter’s illness and she’s brought me a lot of comfort and hope. I don’t think these people can predict the future, but they can tap into your subconscious. Tarot reveals things to me that I usually already know in my gut but might not want to say out loud.”

Still, Marlise keeps these regular visits a secret from most of her friends. “I don’t even tell my husband about it because he thinks it’s bulls - t.”

Curious to find out how tarot works, I sign up for a day-long beginner tarot workshop with Leslie Urquhart. She used to have a big IT job in Toronto for 25 years before becoming a “lightworker,” who runs workshops, such as drum-making and chakra painting at her Soul Escapes retreat in Grimsby, Ont. Tarot is an ancient art based on intuition and interpretation, Urquhart explains. It can help people gain more insight and clarity in their lives. “You might not believe it, but your whole life is in these cards. They’ve lasted for hundreds of years because they resonate with people.”

She takes me through the 22 Major Arcana cards, including The Fool, The Empress, The Lovers and The Hanged Man -  images considered to represent Jungian archetypes -  as well as the 56 cards in the Minor Arcana, which is comprised of numbered and court cards in four suits: swords, wands, cups and coins/pentacles. Within a few hours, I have the basics all figured out. She encourages me to do a three-card reading around an issue I’m grappling with. I think about my 16-year-old daughter who is supremely independent and sometimes pulls away from me, in the way that 16-year-olds tend to do. I draw The Empress card (a woman sitting on a throne holding a scepter and wearing a crown of stars), The Sun (a blonde child on a white horse holding an orange banner) and the King of Pentacles (a king in front of his castle, surrounded by verdant plant life and holding a golden coin). Urquhart helps me to interpret: “As the Empress, you still want to be the nurturing mother. Your daughter is the sun; she’s shining, exploring and testing limits. The King represents security and abundance. Don’t worry. Your daughter is grounded, strong and independent. She’s growing up, and you need to let her go.”

With that, I resolve to stop thinking of my youngest as a child, but rather the young woman she is becoming.

So how can this stuff hurt?  At home, I keep the cards handy and pull them out occasionally for guidance. One day, I draw the Four of Wands, which symbolizes domestic harmony, and I spend a morning joyfully scrubbing down the kitchen. Another day, with a couple of deadlines looming, I pull out the King of Swords, which represents clear-thinking and intellectual ability, and I sail through my work. I read cards for my kids and a couple of friends. It’s an intimate and somewhat giddy exercise as we explore the possible meanings together. Once, before accompanying a close friend to a doctor’s appointment to support her through what might be a scary diagnosis, I draw the Three of Cups. “It’s a card of celebration,” I tell her before heading into the doctor’s office. She looks at me with a mixture of hope and skepticism. The news turns out to be good.

As for my reading with Urech, she tells me not to worry about the Devil card; it has nothing to do with Satan but more to do with negative thoughts that can hold a person back. The Death card crops up, too, but I shouldn’t worry about that one either; it just means the closing of one chapter and the opening of another. She goes on to tell me a bunch of stuff about my work, my marriage, my kids and a new direction that might lie ahead. I share deeply personal things with this complete stranger and feel better for it. “Most of the time, I’m just validating my clients’ own intuition,” she says.  ”Often, people come to me because they don’t trust their gut. I don’t have all the answers, I just try to give them a different perspective.”

I come to see that tarot is more about the present than the future. It can provide access to your dreams, desires and demons -  and maybe even make you confront a truth that you couldn’t face before. It offers a touch of mystery, intrigue and perhaps a sprinkling of the divine. Leaps of faith are required, but none greater than, say, believing in a virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea.

I’m no longer tossing off tarot as a crock. I don’t believe that it’s all hocus-pocus. We bring the magic and the meaning to it ourselves.

“I get lots of hate mail,” Urech tells me. “I’ve been called a false prophet and people have said I’m doing the work of the devil.”

My grandmother would agree. But I certainly don’t.