How to Read Tarot

Adventures in fortune-telling


Reading tarot is a bit like being an accountant: You need to know how to deal with anxious people, possess a strong eye for detail, and be able to bullshit your way out when the news is bad.

To learn the art of reading tarot cards, I turned to Vivienne McCarthy, a noted Mount Airy psychic who, when she first read my palm 20 years ago, blithely predicted I would never have children and that my car was about to die. (Both true.) I adore Vivienne because she says things like, “I consider myself a very serious witch,” and in the next breath, “When I’m reading cards and I don’t like what they say, I just reshuffle.”

Like playing cards, tarot cards have four suits: cups or hearts (representing love and emotions), pentacles (money and work), wands (new directions) and swords (conflict). Numbers also have individual meaning (four, for example, telegraphs “structure”), so marrying the suit and the number gets you a more specific idea of what’s being said. There are also courts cards, ranging from the lovely Queen of Cups, the huggiest in the deck, to the Tower, which shows a burning building falling apart (not good). Where the various cards land in the 11-card Celtic Cross formation guides the overall message.

After a lesson involving reading my cards (swords everywhere, thanks) and Vivienne jangling her many bracelets and instructing in her quasi-Katharine Hepburn accent (“Be specific—people want answers”), I studied my tarot manual for a week before attempting to read others. There was Jess (sweating money, but due for relief), Gene (job trouble, but a beach vacation coming) and Lisa (her husband might be cheating—with another man. Awkward!). In each case, my subjects parsed every comment, fervently looking for clues to their futures. And each time, I felt like I was spewing absolute, total bull.

A week later, Gene called. “Department shuffle,” he said glumly. “I’m getting a new boss who I hear is a total … ” Well, you get the idea. Bad for him, but good for me—perhaps I was in touch with my inner serious witch, too. Although for poor Lisa’s sake, I hope not.

A one-hour tarot reading lesson with Vivienne McCarthy costs $60.