Blog: Cards as Therapy

Cards have always played an important role in my life. I wasn’t always aware of just how much until not so long ago I had pause to think about it. It came about when I was asked to contribute to an article for a popular entertainment website.

My friend Maggie is an editor and prolific ghost writer. If you’re not familiar with ghost writing I’m sorry to say that phrase is not literal. She writes articles or portions of books in the voice of the credited author when that person isn’t available. Maggie was assigned an article on unconventional forms of therapy. She asked me if I would write the portion dealing with cards as a form of therapy. More specifically she wanted me to write about creating the Isidore Tarot as a form of therapy and how others in the tarot community used the cards for meditation and therapeutic means. In the process of writing the short piece I thought back about my interaction with cards throughout my life.

It started very early when I was just six. My parents had been divorced a few years and living in a very remote Michigan town called Bad Axe. My mom decided it was time to get out of there and moved us back to her hometown where we moved into the apartment over my grandparent’s garage. Since my mom worked second shift I spent my afternoons and evenings with my grandparents. I loved that. And every Friday night was poker night for the aunts and uncles. I loved that even more.

These were actually my great aunts and uncles. My grandparents both came from large families where everyone had married young and were still with their partners. Everyone was very close and they were their own circle of friends. So the aunts and uncles would be over, spread out around the poker table, and I had my own little seat at the table. I didn’t take part in their game. They had devised a system for me to play along but also keep my little girl card rules. I had my own miniature deck and my own set of small poker chips. My uncle would pass out the cards and then deal me my own hand. When it was my turn I would throw my betting chips into my special pot and either pass or take a new card. Basically I was playing a game of Blackjack with myself and when everyone showed their cards or folded I would either show my good hand or fold if I had busted. When we counted chips at the end of the evening I got a quarter for the red chips, a dime for the blue ones, and a nickle for the yellow ones. Sometimes I really cleaned up. Poke that arrow to continue.

I loved those Friday nights because sitting at that poker table with my family and my little girl deck of cards made me feel special. I still have that very beaten up little deck of Bicycle cards. I keep them in a trinkets box and they have kept the smell of my uncle John’s cherrywood pipe tobacco all these years.

The next time cards carried importance in my life was for unhappy reasons. Two major things happened in my life as I turned nine. The first thing was losing my grandma. My grandma Eva was more my mother in those days because I was always with her. She taught me to crochet and how to paint planes of glass to create three dimensional shadowboxes. She taught me how to make brownies and decorate cookies. She was my heart and I never got to say goodbye to her. She was taken to the hospital one day and put in the ICU. She wouldn’t let them bring me there to visit. She didn’t want me to see her like that. She went into surgery and in my childish thoughts I knew she’d be fine. Grandmas as great as her simply didn’t die. I talked my mom into spending the money on a celebration dinner for grandma Eva being all fixed up. They called us during that dinner to say she’d never made it out of surgery. I was crushed.

At the same time, and what must have pained my father greatly, he had to tell me he was taking a new job that would transplant him to Boston. That was a very long ways from West Michigan and I was already dealing with only seeing him two weekends a month because he was a three hour drive away in Indiana. He had to tell me he’d visit during the holidays and tried to soften the blow by pointing out he’d stay in a hotel with a pool so his little mermaid could swim as long as she wanted. But other than that I wouldn’t see him until I visited for the summers. It was a very hard double whammy for a rather sensitive nine year old girl.

I don’t think I really need to explain in detail that I had some troubles after this. My parents decided it would be beneficial for me to see a child therapist for awhile. The first one didn’t work out because I wouldn’t talk to him. I’d just sit in my little chair and pull my knees up to my chin and play with my shoelaces. The second therapist had a different approach. She sat down with me at a table that was my size with a deck of cards. She taught me how to play Kings in a Corner. It reminded me of poker nights a little. We would start playing cards and gradually she would ask me questions and without realizing it I was openly talking to her about my grief and why I was acting out. It helped me out greatly and to this day I still appreciate that therapist’s gentle approach to helping me open up. I kept that habit for years, especially with friends. Later on as an adult I’d host Cry Me a River Poker Nights with friends in Detroit where we drank wine, played cards and bitched about life.

Another thing I found therapeutic about cards is them allowing me a way to collect art when I was broke and peek my imagination when I felt like the world was keeping me mundane. It started when my aunt gave me her Gypsy Witch Fortune Telling deck. I still remember touching the fuzzy mock velvet box it came in and opening it up. She’d wrapped the deck in tissue paper to make it a little more fancy. I loved those cards. I was like a lot of moon loving, Stevie Nicks worshiping girls in those days… I wanted to be a witch. I felt like this was the first thing to be added to my witch’s bag. She also passed on to me books handed down to her by her grandmother. These were not books you could just go out and get. I found out my great grandmother was a Rosicrucian, which fascinated the heck out me. These books all hand previous owners written down at the front of the book and who they passed the book on to. And these books! Full of symbolism. She told me her grandma read tarot cards and if I like the Gypsy Witch deck, I’d really love the tarot decks. This was my introduction to the tarot.

I made a commitment to saving up each month so I could buy myself a new deck. The very first deck I was able to buy was the Haindl Tarot. It was such a beautiful deck. It made me happy as an artist because I felt like I was able to acquire such a large collection of art in this small form. It fascinated me with its symbols and imagery. Just handling the deck made me feel good. I kept it wrapped in a silk scarf and a pretty box my mother gave me. I miss that deck. The only other deck I had that held a candle to it was my Vertigo Tarot. Of course being a comic book person, what could be better than the meshing of my two great loves?

Sadly I don’t have any of those decks anymore. A good portion of my original comic book collection, early drawing books, and my collection of decks (including my Gypsy Witch) were stolen by an ex boyfriend. He truly found the best way to hurt me when I left him. It’s taken me years and a bit of mellowing to take a breath and realize these were just material things. I try anyway. Honestly they felt like an extension of myself and therefore I felt very wounded by the loss of them. I tell myself I can replace most of them, but I can’t quite embrace the idea of “replacing” them, so I never have.

Skip ahead many years and I found myself a working artist. I had created two tarot decks by this point and though I loved the heck out of them as creations of mine and a tangible thing born from my fiction, they were still basically projects. Creating them from my fiction was its own type of joy. So the impact my third deck was to make on me was very different. My third tarot deck had never meant to even be a tarot deck honestly. It came about in a very strange series of events.

I won’t go into detail, I’ll just outline the rather bad two years I had back around 2011. First, I cleaned an old home and with my mask off accidentally took in a good ole cloud of air full of dust from aged mouse droppings. I came down with what they call mouse flu and six months and some very scarred lungs later I was finally better. It was a little touch and go in the middle months though. As I was getting better I started making collages out of J.J. Grandville drawings to get my art muscles back in shape. Art and writing require related exercise just as much as anything that has to do with the body and mind. I called this collection An Autumn with Isidore and it was the first creative thing I put online in a year then.

Now this part I might be a little wordier on because I want you to understand what emotions went into something.

A few months later the gent and I found out I was pregnant and for ten blissful weeks everything progressed well. And by well I mean I was happily suffering from sore boobs, morning sickness, headaches, hyper nose, and I was exhausted most of the time. Before that I typically miscarried around five weeks so this was incredible for us. We had a minor worry at my first ultrasound because they had a hard time seeing the womb. We chalked it up to my weight and other pesky things because all my preggers hormones were doubling at a normal rate. I was scheduled to get a fresh scan a week later.

Before this second ultrasound I started getting strong pains in my abdomen. I saw my doctor before the scan for a check-up and she felt we couldn’t wait for my scan appointment and sent me to the ER. This time we found out the pregnancy was ectopic and had to be terminated immediately. I can’t begin to explain what it feels like to know there is life inside of you that can’t go on because there is no way for it to go on and to even attempt to let it would put my life at risk. I was not a nice human to the world in the following weeks. This wasn’t the grief of having lost someone I;d gotten the chance to know and love, this was a grief of never getting that chance to know something I already loved dearly.

Some time after that I got a random inquiry from a long time visitor to my site. She said she really liked my Isidore collages and since I made tarot decks had I considered reworking those collages into one? I was polite to her, but the very last thing on my mind was taking on another huge project like that, especially in that frame of mind. I could barely pull it together to take care of client work. Still, it put a thought in my head and one evening when I was mindlessly watching television I decided to open up my laptop. I pulled up the Rider Waite Smith deck on Google images. I looked at my collages. I then started to paw through all my scans from my Grandville book. The first card I tinkered with, appropriately enough, was the Fool. I spent some time researching the history and symbolism of the card. He came so easily and I was so happy with him when I was done, so I did the same with the next card. By the end of the night I had created the black and white blue print for three cards and I felt good. I felt better than I had in a very long time.

I spent the next few months working on my Isidore deck creating each card in deck order. I can tell you it was one of the best forms of therapy and self healing I could have ever found for myself. The cards came so easily and they gave me purpose. It gave me something to look forward to when I got up in the morning. It also gave me a sense of this is something creative of mine I can finally really invest in. I found the time and reason to better understand the symbolism of these cards. I don’t want to be dramatic, but I’m going to be dramatic. 😉 It was a turning point in my life. When I finished that deck I knew it was time for me to get my shit together and stop with the depression and air fairy attitude and get on with my life in a positive fashion. My aunt said “That deck is like the one kid you know will go to college and can probably afford to put you in a nice nursing home when the time comes. It was made with a lot of love.” which made me laugh, but damn if I didn’t think it was true.

Since then I’ve looked towards my deck creating as more than just a simple creative project. Each deck constitutes a commitment of time, energy and my emotions. Each represents a moment and a reason for needing to be created. When an idea takes on that sort of life it becomes something very different. Also, knowing that this thing I’ve created is out there in the world making someone else happy is one of the greatest feelings I’ve felt. The very sentimental part of my brain and heart likes to think that even though my body hasn’t been able to meet the challenge of giving birth in the traditional sense, it found a way to do it in a symbolic sense.

Wow, I made myself tear up writing this. That was some pretty hefty spleen spilling. I have absolutely no shame in being very honest about these things. It’s a type of sincerity I didn’t always feel with my art. Back in my younger days I did my time walking around a gallery with my work on display and having someone tell me what I was thinking when I made it. At that time the reason I made something was very simple: I’m a storyteller and I like telling stories. I’m a good writer with above average artistic skills so that gives me one more way to get the stories out of my head and make them real. It was very simple and I often got a little cranky when people made with the artsy-fartsy talk around me. I didn’t appreciate them trying to understand or take something away from my work. I should have felt more proud that someone would even bother.

These days I understand that there is a greater depth to the things we do and what those things can do for us so I’m glad to have gotten over taking it for granted. When life has me in a corner I’m still that kid with her knees to her face, playing with her shoelaces in an effort to avoid talking about it. But put the cards in my hands and let me fall into that dreamy space of being present without being present and it all just comes right out. If you haven’t tried it, I do recommend letting the cards be a bit of therapy when you need it.

That was very cathartic. I needed that as I stare down the day of housecleaning and cooking my very first Thanksgiving turkey in my first home of my own. I also have some hardcore cleaning, three dining room chairs that need to be re-covered before the night is out, and some last minute shopping to do. It’ll be a cake walk, right? Talk to you all on the other side of Thursday! 🙂