“Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost … the embers left from earlier fires … shall duly flame again.”
Walt Whitman, “Continuities”
Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855; his voice was as youthful, brazen, and robust as the idealized nation he represented. “I celebrate myself,” begins his signature poem, “Song of Myself,” which he would continue to rewrite and revise for the remainder of his life. Though he remained aware, throughout, that he was but one man, it was not the microcosmic and transitory view he extolled but the macrocosmic and expansive vision of humanity: “I am large … I contain multitudes.” His poetry resounds with a transcendent spirit certain of its immortality, for though he knew he would one day die, he did not believe the greater part of him would ever be lost: “I depart as air. . . . I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love; if you want me again look for me under your boot soles. . . . Missing me one place search another; I stop somewhere waiting for you” [i] As he grew older, he did not waver in his faith, writing “Continuities” toward the end of his life, undoubtedly experiencing many of the emotions I am coming to terms with now.
I had not intended to write anything about Walt Whitman when I began this project. I am not even sure where the memory came from: I had not thought about Whitman or his work in decades. He was a powerful voice when I was an undergraduate student studying poetry at SUNY Brockport, and I always had a copy of Leaves of Grass in my backpack, for whatever subject captured my interest at the time, Whitman seemed to always have something pertinent to say.
I drew this current spread on July 12th, 2020, three days after my fifty-fifth birthday. For the most part, time passes for me unnoticed: I lead an outwardly uneventful kind of life; each day is very much like the one which came before it. However, the calendar also contains markers which engender in me more sober reflections, such as birthdays and the beginnings and endings of years. On this particular date, I was struck once again with the realization that the luxury of time I enjoyed when I was in my early twenties, with decades before me in which to achieve the goals I set for myself, is no more.
While I was in college, I became a journal writer. I was incredibly fortunate to have two English professors that assigned journals in their classes in lieu of tests and quizzes. I’m certain that the academic justification for this was that while students could put off assignments all semester then cram for exams and attain passing marks, there is no way to fake a semester’s worth of effort in a daily journal. But the true purpose of the exercise was to require students to engage with the course work every day.
When I graduated and entered the workplace, everything changed. Whitman’s vision seemed less relevant, and my copy of Leaves made its way onto a bookshelf to gather dust, but I continued to keep my journal faithfully, for I quickly discovered that it was about the only thing keeping me centered and sane.
In the years, then decades which followed, my journal has migrated from the lined sheets of spiral notebooks to the virtual pages of my computer. I have a full time job, a couple friends, but mostly my life occurs inwardly. It is from the creative process that I draw my energy, and I have never really thought about publishing. However, with the passing of time, the thought that everything I had done would be lost weighed increasingly on my mind, though I did not know what I could do about it. Then a friend at work suggested I write a blog.
I had never considered the possibility before. I knew nothing about blogging, and in an overcrowded blogosphere, I seriously doubted anyone would ever find their way to my site, but that really did not matter to me. What was important, I thought, was that I had a platform which would allow me to gather my ideas, put them into a coherent form, and send them out, to rejoin in some way the immutable yet infinitely variable creative source from whence they came.
So it was with these thoughts that I shuffled my deck and drew the Valet of Wands Rx, the Valet of Coins, and the Ace of Swords Rx.
My first impression of this spread is I am very glad I began with two human figures, for these make it much easier to relate to the narrative. There have been times I’ve drawn three number cards to start, such as the Six of Coins, the Five of Cups, and the Seven of Wands and felt like picking them all up and reshuffling, for such a spread using the Tarot de Marseille is challenging to the point of being almost entirely worthless. In moments like those, I do not wonder why most readers and querents prefer decks in the Waite-Smith tradition; however, consulting the Tarot is not meant to always be something fun and easy; merely shuffling the deck is not a guarantor of success. Sometimes the insights we seek are not forthcoming – at least not without a lot of time and effort, and even then, things might be too confusing at the moment to make sense of. Sometimes you simply have to struggle through the quagmire, though you have no beacon to guide you (and it is also possible there are no answers to our questions at that particular time or stage of development; a maddeningly incomprehensible draw might indicate either reader or querent or both need to do a lot more foundational work).
However, after my initial relief, I realized I would have to deal with the complication of RX cards sooner rather than later, as two of the three are flipped. There is no real consensus among readers on managing these cards, beginning with how we refer to them. Some people call them “reversed,” “inverted,” “upside down” – I reject all these designations as they imply a deviation from “normal.” After years struggling with the issue, I decided on using only the RX tag to eliminate as many of the negative connotations as possible.[ii] Some readers do not allow RX cards in their spreads at all; one guy told me that if such an image pops up, he quietly turns it around without making a fuss about it so as not to alarm his querent. Another friend told me that he turns the cards around as well, but he places a marker on each to remind him that those cards are special or require extra attention. Even amongst readers and querents who choose to keep RX images within their spreads, there is no consensus on interpretation. In some books, it seems the writer simply reverses the “upright” commentary; this seems a rather unsophisticated approach, but I also believe that as long as a reader and querent are consistent, there should be no problem with this. Some books offer in-depth alternate interpretations for RX images that may closely parallel their “upright” [iii] counterparts or deviate from them. Everyone must ultimately find his or her own way in this. As for me, I see it as a matter of perspective.
It occurred to me during one of my infrequent readings when my querent asked about an “upside down” card that was troubling him that all he had to do to “fix it” was move to the other side of the table. In one way, this is quite a simplistic idea (and might even seem to be cheating), but at that moment, it all made sense to me: we are constantly in the process of translating and interpreting the world around us from our individual perspective. If we move just a bit to the left or right, or view things from the other side, what we see changes.
Who is to say that one card is “upright” and the other is “upside down,” “reversed,” or “inverted.” It is more probable that the Tarot is suggesting that at that moment, what is needed is a fresh vantage point and an open mind: we do not all see the world in exactly the same way; nor can we say there is one correct or normal way to view things. If we want to get a fuller picture, we have to move around, and there are also times when we cannot see the solution to a problem because we are stuck in a traditional mind-set when a more creative approach or an opposing viewpoint is required.
When a card appears in a spread RX, the image has not changed, only the orientation – and that only in relation to us. Therefore, I do not seek alternate meanings; rather, I examine how the reversed orientation affects the unfolding narrative.
So, focusing on the Valet of Wands, the primary difference between the “upright” and RX orientations is the direction the figure faces, and this gives the spread its initial character, which we can easily see when we contrast the current arrangement with other possible configurations. For instance, simply by turning the first card upright, we bring about a completely different narrative:
In this disposition, the two valets appear to form a closed circuit; perhaps they are offering up the emblems of their suit for each other’s inspection, while the Ace of Swords RX, as vibrant as it is, exists outside, unnoticed or ignored by the two young men. I might interpret this as signifying the distraction of lesser forms while an archetypal revelation is overlooked.
If I shuffle the order around so that the Ace is in the center, I get something else entirely:
The Ace of Swords RX becomes paramount in the narrative. We can imagine that the two valets, themselves representing the lowest figures in the hierarchy of the court, offer the emblems of their suit for inspection with some degree of insecurity, as they are clearly not as impressive as the blood-red sword plunging through the center of a golden crown, while vibrant sparks of energy sizzle and crackle all around (to say nothing of the olive and palm branches that hang off the crown, signifying victory). We might also see the “closed circuit” in the previous configuration is disrupted by the Ace of Swords RX, and being thrust into the ground rather than upraised gives the impressing of being a more violent division.
If we switch the two valets around we create a spread suggesting the two young men are so preoccupied with their individual concerns, the emblems of their suits (perhaps contemplating how they will advance in their respective courts) they have no awareness whatsoever of each other or the Ace of Swords RX between them. The Ace might also be seen as a dividing line keeping the two sides separate, but since the youths are already turned away from each other, this partition is less severe than the preceding composition. We might easily imagine such a sequence illustrating a disconnect or lack of harmony in the querent’s situation.
This brings us back to the original alignment of the cards:
The Tarot de Marseille Ace of Swords is the most dynamic image in any deck I have seen, yet in this arrangement, the Ace is marginalized; its explosive vitality is lost as the two youthful valets face away, directing the flow of the spread left, which brings up the issue of how we interpret the vast margins to the right and left of the cards. Although spreads have starting and ending points, they do not occur in a vacuum: they occur within the context of the querent’s life. Since I lay the cards out from left to right and will continue to add cards to the right as they are needed, the right margin corresponds to subsequent time and development, roughly what is to come; thus, if the figures are oriented in such a way as they are looking or moving right, I generally read them as advancing, anticipating or entering the unknown and unfolding future. However, if the figures appear to be gazing or traveling left, I interpret this as an interest in history, which might be personal (as innocuous as a fleeting reminiscence or as detrimental to the querent’s development as a fixation on a moment or event he cannot leave behind); yet, his interest need not concern him intimately: it might be cultural, global, or evolutionary. In my spread, the fact that both the first two cards are oriented to the left while nothing is pointing toward the right strongly suggests I am anchored to or in some sense preoccupied with the past; this orientation I take as a general insight: in order to gain a greater understanding, I need to examine more closely the two figures who I interpret as representing aspects of me.
[i] These lines come from the 51st and 52nd sections of the original version of “Song of Myself.” I changed the punctuation around a bit, so that I could present his words in prose rather than reproduce it in lines of poetry.
[ii] To be perfectly honest, I do not even like using RX, as it is the designation for medical prescriptions, and this is how the majority of people read it. I have tried other kinds of abbreviations, such as RO (for reversed orientation), REV, etc., but I did not like the look of any of them. Since RX is the accepted notation in Tarot, I have adopted it with one variation, making both letters subscript, RX, to set it apart from the medical usage.
[iii] By “upright” I am, of course, referring to the orientation that corresponds to that of the querent. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find an alternative way of designating these cards that is both succinct and which is not loaded with connotations of what is “normal” or “correct” and what is not.