In the cards

A party trick with a twist

Artwork by Jess Zlotnick Artwork by Jess Zlotnick

If you’re sitting across from me at the pub as I pull out my tarot cards there’s is one thing I can predict know without the help of the cards:, and that is that you won’t be are not the first person to say, half-jokingly, “I hope I don’t get Death!”

It’s a joke, but it’s also not. People don’t like the idea of death and, in my experience, they like the idea of knowing about their own death even less. Despite this snap judgment, I’m of the opinion that of all the cards Death is definitely the best one. Death is the raddest of the characters in the Major Arcana. Death rocks up in a black cloak, sometimes skeletal, usually riding a horse, and casually asks you to join them come with on a ride. Death is like an older sibling who after a long life of being too cool to hang out with you finally says, “okay, fine, you can ride passenger side in my Honda Civic.”

I don’t have anything you could call a ‘party trick’, so my coping mechanism for this lack of fun is to pull out a deck of tarot cards and just start doing readings; me, sitting across from you, the cards between us. It’s my way of entertaining myself if I’m sober at a party, because there’s nothing better when you’re the only one not drinking than watching a drunk person quite seriously think through what the cards are saying. I don’t know many people who harbour much faith in higher powers, let alone an Arts student with a pack of tarot cards. I consider myself a very healthy skeptic, and I preface every single reading with that fact: that I do not believe that pulling three random cards from a deck will somehow predict your future. I figure if I’m upfront about it I can surprise both of us if, by some chance, it’s spookily accurate.

There are 78 cards in a standard tarot deck, 22 in the Major arcana, and only one of them is literally called ‘Death’. It’s a 1/78 chance, but I’m always a little surprised by how often Death comes up. Every time I flip it and see that it’s Death I have to preface the following with, “Now don’t freak out, but…”

People tend to take it well. “Oh, haha, Death, does that mean I’m going to die?”

In short: no. Death in your spread does not mean you’re going to die. Death means change, rebirth, the end of something old and the beginning of something new. Every time I turn it over in someone’s spread I tell them that it’s one of my favourite cards. I don’t really have favourite cards, but I think it’s reassuring to hear that when you’re staring death in the face.

What I’ve realised is that hearing that death means change is often the opposite of reassuring. It kind of sucks to have a spread in front of you that’s saying “‘stop doing the degree you’ve been working at for the last four years and go pursue acting.”’. Cool as that sounds in a spread, it’s a little harder to action. I’ve made friends tear up during readings before. One time I turned over Death, quickly gave the spiel about Death meaning change to make my friend feel better, and accidentally made it worse. That evening I found out, when he called me drunk, that he’d very recently gone through a tough breakup. Sometimes people don’t want Death to mean change, they’d much rather it meant death.

I’d like to advocate for the rehabilitation of Death’s image, to let you in on a practitioner’s secret: the cards don’t mean anything except what you project from your own life onto them, and I cannot predict your future or even your present (although if I could use the cards to predict the date and circumstances of my own death you damn well know I would).

One of my friends is a little too smart for me; in the three years we’ve known each other he’s yet to let me do a tarot reading for him, because he knows that there is nothing mystical going on, and me pulling out a stack of tarot cards and slapping Death in front of you is a not so subtle nudge to get your shit together and do something wild. Take Death by the bony hand and quit your job, change your degree, marry that person you’ve been dating for a while. It’s like being a therapist but with no commitment and more decks of cards than you’ll ever have the chance to use.

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