Playing with Fear: How Oracle Cards Taught Me To Ask More Honest Questions
Rita Zoey Chin on a Lifetime of Chasing the Unanswerable
At slumber parties, my childhood friends and I used to take turns being dead. “Here lies Jennifer,” one of us would narrate as we all knelt around the “deceased,” “who wandered onto a dark and deserted road on a rainy night…” Though our stories varied, the ends we met were always ghastly and usually attended by at least one of the following: 1) madmen, 2) ghosts, or 3) beasts of obscure origin (BOO). “Light as a feather, stiff as a board,” we chanted in hushed voices, as we slid our first two fingers beneath the “victim” and lifted her up, up. With the lightest touch, we were pretending to reach across the veil. We were proving that supernatural levitations don’t require strength.
I grew up watching ghosts rise in swirling gusts of autumn leaves. In the pitch dark of the bathroom, I dared to summon the local legendary specter Black Aggie in the mirror. I consorted with midnight skeletons of light that danced on the walls. I probed the cosmic mysteries with charts I gleaned from astrology books and consulted my Magic 8-Ball with the seriousness of a soothsayer. Everything, it seemed, could be read, if one let her sight adjust to the darkness.
A few years ago, I discovered a more sophisticated Magic 8 Ball: oracle cards. A friend I was visiting had just presented me with a cup of tea and a box of cards with a dove hovering in sunbeams on the front and the words Gaia Oracle.
“Is this a tarot deck?” I asked, afraid to even touch it. My fear of tarot had been born decades earlier, when I’d gone to my first reading in the back of a crystal shop. At the same exact moment that the reader and I were trying to make sense of my life, miles away, someone was breaking into my apartment and robbing me. Punishment, I thought later, as I stood with the police amid the rubble of my belongings, for trying to see what should not be seen.
“They’re oracle cards,” my friend said. “You can ask them questions.”
As I sipped the tea my friend brewed from herbs she’d grown and watched her unbox the cards, the Death card in my mind turned 180 degrees, and I saw my first tarot reading in reverse: What would have happened if I’d been home when the intruder entered? Could my first tarot reading have possibly saved my life?
I took this deck from my friend’s hands and began to shuffle. At that time, I’d been at a standstill with the first draft of my novel. I knew it needed a major revision but didn’t know if that was where I should be putting my energy. So I asked the deck, “Where should I put my energy right now?” I pulled the Sacred Heart—a red heart radiating light and shooting up flames. “This is a good time,” the accompanying guidebook said of the card, “for creative writing.” I went home that day and ordered a deck of my own. I also began editing my novel.
A departure from the Major Arcana and Minor Arcana of classic tarot decks, oracle cards are as varied as a packet of wildflower seeds. Sometimes straying from the traditional 78-card format of tarot, modern oracle decks are usually organized around a theme, such as animals, herbs, sacred geometry, witches, the moon. But like tarot decks—which through the years have boasted renderings from the likes of Pamela Colman Smith, Leonora Carrington, Salvador Dali—an oracle deck can be a luscious and provocative work of art.
Of course, I want more from my oracle cards—something, well, oracular—though my desire is often tempered by a hefty dose of skepticism and fiery disdain for the commoditization of soulless new-age drivel. Still, I attempt to shuffle the newly unboxed Wild Unknown Archetypes deck a friend has recently given me for my birthday, though the thick round cards are too big for my hands and I keep dropping them. Eventually I give up and swish the cards facedown all over the floor as if I’m playing Go Fish.
“What should I know about using this deck?” I ask. I close my eyes and pick The Cave, “the dark, the portal, the interior.” I’m not sure what’s going on with the card’s imagery—two eyes peering out from darkness, a woman’s hand being partially held by a man’s, a distant sun presiding—but I’m struck by how, according to the accompanying guidebook, The Cave seems to reflect the nature of my initiatory experience with the deck: “a space for sacred ritual and initiation.” I page through the guidebook to see if other cards mention “initiation.” They don’t.
I’m impressed enough to consult the deck again the following day. Because this isn’t my first time around the oracle card block, I know better than to ask this next question, but I really want to know: Should I give myself bangs? I pull The Queen, who the guidebook tells me can be “vane” when dark. I wonder how seriously I should take a homophonic typo, but thinking that makes me feel at odds with my deck, and “petty,” which the guidebook also tells me belongs to one side of The Queen’s “dualistic nature.” I’m huffy, but the card redeems itself with suggestions to “go deeper” by reading Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping” and listening to Nina Simone’s “Stars.”The answers make me a better a question-asker, and the asking possibly makes me a better person.
In going deeper, I find myself thinking less about the card’s answer and more about the question I’ve asked. I revise: Why is the prospect of bangs suddenly important to me? The answers are complex, but I know they have something to do with getting older and wanting to look younger (yes, vanity), with how I’ve experienced power in my life and how that’s changing, and must change. In the weeks that follow, I drop many questions into the messy river of cards strewn across my floor: How can I best support my partner? What needs my energy on this new moon? How can I be less afraid? The answers make me a better a question-asker, and the asking possibly makes me a better person.
The truth is I’ve always been a question-asker. I know countless people’s deepest secrets, simply because a single question can unlock an endless series of doors. If you were to look at the notebooks I kept while I was writing my first novel—the one I went back to revise—you’d see pages and pages of questions.
But going deeper, I realize that almost everything I write is born from questions that have captured my imagination all my life, many of which are unanswerable. Where does magic come from, and how can we access it? What is dark matter and dark energy—which make up 95% of the universe but mystify cosmologists—made of? What is a soul? Are these questions all part of the same question…? Even without the answers, the asking allows me to engage with the dark matter of duende, to create my own inner constellations of stars.
Though the cards continue to surprise me with their uncanny ability to twin my life, I don’t know whether they offer, in their archetypal depictions of The Bridge, The Bardo, Anima Mundi, a magical portal to the letterlocked mysteries of the universe. I don’t know if, in plunging my hand into the lot of them, I’m reaching into an otherworld any more than I’d done as a child, when I cast my imagination into the darkness and felt the pulse of the unseen. But what I relish about these cards is how the ritual of using them is, in fact, a portal. Sprinkled with celestial bodies, gemstones, eyeballs; populated by birds and snakes and skulls; rich in vivid crimson, emerald, gold, these cards launch me through a wormhole to that same darkness—rich and bulging and alive—that captivated me as a child, a darkness that still offers a haven where I can summon, and even play with, the things that scare me, by writing about them.
Perhaps what I was attempting to decipher all those moons ago, as I questioned my Magic 8-Ball and shook hard for the answers, wasn’t much different from what I seek now. Perhaps it was always less about reading the invisible ink of the universe and more about exploring the “true self in the darkness,” as The Cave suggests.
Writing that last sentence, I feel an oracle card wanting to surface from an unnamed deck: There is no difference, it says. Concentrate and ask again.