The best $40 I ever spent: A not-quite-tarot deck

The last time I drank alcohol, I was found a full day later in the trunk of a car outside of a bar called Six Packs in rainy, rural northwestern Pennsylvania. We’d traveled to the region for my best friend’s wedding and I’d relapsed the night before the ceremony, sneaking off in the middle of the night to find a beer to calm my anxiety over being back “home.” One beer turned to many, and my last coherent memory of the spree was my decision to pop into a backcountry bar whose name gave me the drunken certainty that it contained hard-stomached male strippers (reader, I was mistaken).

This latest relapse meant I’d missed my best friend’s wedding. To my horror, I realized that she must have been relieved by my absence, given the way I’d tornadoed through so many open-bar events in our decades-long friendship.

But even during this, my rockiest of rock bottoms, I experienced the joy of being found. My husband teamed up with my oldest friend, who still lives near our hometown, to locate me; seeing their relief that I was alive was something I couldn’t believe I deserved.

Though the act of being found by others was a lightning bolt to the dying battery of my sobriety, finding myself was another proposition entirely. The act of self-help has always given me pause, particularly one with any sort of spiritual component. Drinking, for this alcoholic, was an act of splintering or shattering. So perhaps self-help — hell, even self-reflection — scared me because I was terrified that there was nothing good left to find.

But, of course, self-help is necessary for any addict who wants to live. I threw myself into a 12-step program, of which the 11th step was meditation. My sponsor — a nervous, sweet writer with a shaggy head of hair and a shaggier dog — assured me over tea in his small living room that meditation was “the really fun part” of the 12-step process. “It’s where you find the real you,” he promised. “And it’s easy!”

It wasn’t. I started with a simple, Oprah-assisted meditation. But my mind felt too full, my nerves too raw to relax. Rather than blankness, I would see things while I meditated, and I greeted those images with skepticism, fear, and confusion.

First, I saw lights of varying colors and intensities, all swirling around in the meditative abyss. Cynicism minimized the significance of these colors, as did a Google search, which identified them as phosphenes, caused by the overstimulation of my optic nerves.

I also saw wide, empty landscapes, which would occasionally be populated by massive stone statues and moss-covered tombstones. My mind was particularly drawn to two locations from my youth: the Pennsylvania forest I’d wandered as a teenager and Greendale Cemetery, a lush, peaceful place I’d grown up playing in as a child. These are also candidates for easy dismissal. Of course I’d remember my favorite natural scenes from childhood when trying to find a safe place in nature.

Finally, I’d see — or imagine that I was seeing — beasts: a manatee god, a hellish dragon, a vine-covered witch lurking at the corner of a mind-kindled bonfire. Ghosts, of course. All of them very on-the-nose reminders that I was a drunk. My demons. My spirits. Come on, brain, don’t be such a cliché!

Approaching meditation as a cynic, for me, led to further demoralization. I wanted the messages behind my eyelids to mean something. I wanted to be receiving those messages from somewhere; whether that somewhere was a distant part of my own brain or from a higher power really wasn’t the point.

This is where The Wild Unknown Archetypes Deck and Guidebook by Kim Krans came in. My dear friend and teacher, the writer Amy Bonnaffons, introduced me to it as part of a workshop she was leading that combined meditation, creative writing, and collage. I ordered the deck and guidebook as soon as she mentioned it.

When the package arrived, I stared at the box, unsure of how to proceed. The guidebook is small and watercolored, and the cards come in an attractive circular container that could easily double as a sensible, New Age clutch purse. I had no experience with tarot decks or oracle decks, which is how the internet categorizes the Archetypes deck.

I opened the guidebook first. Right in the introduction, Krans says, “When an image calls to you, you may trust it.” That inner saboteur brayed again, and I reminded myself that I was going to do this right. So I was going to trust these images. This time. I hoped.

I continued to read until I reached the “Using the Cards” section, which seemed like a sign that it was time to get down to business. There were five different methods of card-reading described, one involving one card, the next involving three, then four, then two different five-card methods. Drawing just one was out of the question. What if I drew a bad card? The four- and five-card methods seemed like too much of a commitment and also too diluting. What if I drew an awesome card — surely there was a best card? — only to draw three or four suck cards to surround it? So I picked the three-card spread, “Summon the Divine.” According to Krans, this spread is simplified to represent only three ascending chakra centers: The Root, The Heart, and The Crown.

I shuffled the cards, spreading them out across a small table in my office. I plugged in my Himalayan salt lamp and lit a Silver Birch Yankee Candle for assistance, fully committing to middle-class shamanic realness. Prayer seemed like a good idea, so I went with the serenity prayer, my hands hanging over the cards: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Nothing glowed, no sudden winds blew out my candle, and I received no psychic messages, so I assumed it was okay to proceed.

My first card, my Root (“the grounding by which you navigate core fears, habits, and stuckness,” according to Krans), was Kairos, the image on the card a wolf’s eye surrounded by sky-blue scales. Kairos is one of the Initiation cards, which represent “big moments, junctures, and situations in life that carry major significance along our journey.” Kairos represents mythic time, a “secondary time continuum that goes beyond earthly clocks and schedules.” Kairos represents patience and precision. It represents choosing to act based on inner knowledge.

This immediately resonated. I was trapped in the bourbon-scented amber of mythic time, glamorizing so many drinks and drinking nights when I hadn’t had a good drink in years. Maybe ever. And acting on inner knowledge? It was something I’d long been refusing to do. Where had I been expecting the wet, dark Pennsylvania roads to take me when I’d ended up in the Six Packs parking lot?

When I meditated, my mind kept going back to the forests and cemeteries of my youth. But they weren’t just safe places in nature; they were the last time I’d felt safe at all. They’re stuck in mythic time, the time before my love for my hometown was crushed under the burden of being bullied too long, back to where I was before I’d started drinking.

My second card, the Heart card (which tells you of “a deep longing, calling, or conflict that is at the center of all centers within the psyche”), was the Stone. The Stone’s card is drawn as an opalescent oval within a circle within a square within a triangle, like someone dropped some oily ink into the eye of the pyramid on the back of a dollar bill. The Stone “is best used to anchor our wild side, no matter how far we roam, we can always find our way back. The Stone tethers us to Earth, helping to ground and connect us to stillness, quiet, and peace.” Suddenly, the appearance of statues and tombstones meant more than childhood memories or watching too many horror movies. The Stone, my Heart, was what grounded me. It keeps my wild side, the side willing to risk not seeing his best friend get married for even the chance of a good buzz and some impossible strippers, from taking over.

The final card, my Crown (which “represents the part of you that wants to reach beyond the self toward heaven”), was the Shaman. It’s a strange card, both retro and haunting, with three skulls, a golden ball, a huge diamond, a ghostly hand, and a red snake all set upon the background of a starry night. If you’ve ever watched the “Total Eclipse of the Heart” music video then you’ll have an idea of the aesthetic. The Shaman is one of the Selves, cards that “represent the many sides of the self that are either awakened or asleep within us.” The Shaman is “a master who bridges the everyday and the sacred, revealing potent power desperately needed in our time.” This felt scarily on the nose, particularly as my Crown card, that part of me that wanted to “reach beyond the self toward heaven.” I thought back to the wide, bright spaces in my meditations, to the giant beasts, both benevolent and demonic. My mind had been trying to reach for something powerful, something magical, something sacred for so long, but I was allowing skepticism and shame to flatten it.

My hopes and dreams for myself, for the life that I wanted, were right there in my meditations from the beginning. I simply hadn’t had the language to explain it. I wanted a sober and peaceful life, but one that was still filled with magic and mystery. I wanted to trust my gut, and my mind, and my imagination. What I saw when I closed my eyes was very much like what appeared on the card for the Shaman. An amalgamation of fantastical images. Those colors behind my eyes, so similar to the colors of the cards, did mean something because they meant something to me. My mind — more than that, though, my whole life — longed for a bigger connection. For more magic, for a stronger link with something bigger than myself.

These cards didn’t allow me to read the future. I’m not even sure they allowed me to read my present. What they were able to do, though, was to pause the cynic in me. Not only did the images in my head have meaning, they had good, positive meanings. Any alcoholic will tell you that ours is a disease that finds you at battle with your own mind. With this new tool at my disposal, my mind became less of a burden and less of cliché. And it was full, full of so much, if I could just kick the trunk door open for myself. Rather than serving as both a receptacle for and producer of a number of mundane processes and bromide images, my meditating mind is the source of mystery, intrigue, thoughtfulness, and discovery.

My own wild unknown, waiting for me to find it.

Mike McClelland lives in complete chaos with his husband, two sons, and three rescue dogs, and is the author of Gay Zoo Day and a recently completed novel about queer witches.


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