#100loveletters: The letters we don’t write

#100loveletters: The letters we don’t write

(This post is part of the #100loveletters challenge, which started June 21, and is open to anyone, at no charge! The challenge is really easy, and really hard – for 100 days, from June 21 to September 29, write yourself a love letter. It can be short, it can be long, it can be a stick figure or a sonnet or a flower or a song. Share your pictures, comments, thoughts, and stories in the hashtag on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or in your blog, and find a community of people practicing a summer of daily self-love.

You can join the email list to receive writing prompts, encouragement, and success stories.)

Yesterday, just a week into the 100 Love Letters Challenge, I didn’t write myself a love letter.

I thought about it. I almost wrote it. I almost wrote about ten different versions of it. There were multiple points in the day where I thought “I did that well, I love that about myself,” or “that was really challenging, I could use some gentleness and love around that issue.”

(Like every day, there were moments of confidence, moments of doubt, moments of anger, moments of joy. Once you start noticing your experience, the complex and varying texture of each day becomes so much more apparent.)

I even pulled out my box of greeting cards* and flipped through, looking for the right card for what I was feeling.

I thought about writing my love letter in another Facebook post – I’ve done that most days so far.

I thought about taking some more pictures and turning one of them into a meme to go with the love letter – I’ve been enjoying the nudge towards more creativity.

I thought about scrawling a stick figure on a post-it note, as midnight approached, and I started to feel more anxious about missing the deadline.

But the stick figure on a post-it note would have been purely performance – that wasn’t the love letter I wanted. It would have just been for show, to prove that I’m doing the challenge successfully. So, I didn’t do it. It didn’t really feel loving.

I’m not sure why I didn’t write myself a letter yesterday. I could have – I had the time, I had the content, I had the motivation. I wasn’t hating myself, or particularly disappointed in myself, or feeling ashamed of myself. I had moments of self-awareness and self-compassion that could easily have become a love letter.

But I also had a significant reluctance to write. To write anything. Anything at all.

My reluctance was both internal and external.

On the one hand, I felt anxious about being visibly self-loving. What if I love myself too much, too openly, too loudly, too visibly? What if it makes people hate me? And, also, what if I love myself visibly, but I do it wrong, and people are disappointed in me? Visibility is risky. That’s the external reluctance – the fear of what people will think about what I write to myself.

But then, the internal resistance.

It’s just hard, my friends.

Writing myself a love letter every day is hard.

I don’t like it.

I like self-care that focuses on my flaws, my anxieties, my failings. I like looking at my failures and then forgiving myself for those. I like paying attention to the sadness, the fear, the wounds that still hurt. It keeps the focus where I’m comfortable.

Love letters are different.

Romance is different.

Different, and hard.

I can do love letters to others, and romance for others, easily. But not so much for myself. I might do it wrong. I might do it wrong.

And so, yesterday I didn’t write.

Because I am running this #100loveletters challenge, that unwritten letter is, in some ways, as visible as any of the written letters. And it’s worth acknowledging the lack of a letter. It’s worth talking about the resistance.

Every one of us in this challenge will run into resistance. There will be so much resistance. And we will get through it, whatever it is. Fear of “doing it wrong,” anger at ourselves, shame, discomfort, embarrassment.

When you hit that wall, if you haven’t hit it yet, know that you’re not alone.

We are here together, floating on the glow of self-love and dragging with the weight of self-hate.

There will be days with no letter, and that doesn’t invalidate your participation in the challenge, and it doesn’t diminish the love you are cultivating for yourself.

We can look into the parts of ourselves that are less comfortable, and we will be okay. That loving abyss is gazing back, and yeah, it’s terrifying, but, you know, it’s also really great. I’m pretty sure it’s really great.

Here we go, onward!

* I have a phenomenal collection of greeting cards, and I’ll be sending a hand written letter to five challenge participants over the course of the hundred days. I’ll be randomly selecting one challenge participant every twenty days of the challenge. To enter, just send me an email and let me know that you’re participating in the challenge and you’d like to be entered for the hand-written letter!

 

Moving Towards Wholeness: Summer Online Course

Moving Towards Wholeness: Summer Online Course

Registration has been extended to July 16! There are still five spots available as of July 9.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 – Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

What does it mean to have a body, and to accept the body that you have?

To “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”?

What does it mean to be present in the physical world, as a physical being?

To see that “the sun and the clear pebbles of rain are moving across the landscapes”?

This course, Moving Towards Wholeness: physical self-care and body narratives, is an invitation to ask, and begin to answer, those questions.

Moving Towards Wholeness is a six-week online course designed to encourage gentle, playful exploration and acceptance of ourselves as physical beings in a physical world. We will work on sensory awareness, and even incorporate some elements of sensory integration for emotional regulation.

This course is explicitly welcoming for fat, disabled, trans, racialized, and traumatized bodies and selves. Self-love is not required. Awareness, intention, compassion, and presence will all be cultivated in the course, but the elusive ideal of self-love (so often inaccessible to those of us with histories of trauma or marginalization) will be left on the table for you to pick up or not.

The course will focus on encouraging mindfulness and presence, and physical acts of self-care such as staying hydrated, stretching, moving in accessible ways, mindful breathing, focusing on our senses, and engaging playfully and creatively with our bodies, our senses, and the physical world around us. We will work on recognizing and being present with the physical body, and on recognizing and reframing internalized narratives about what it means to have a body and to be “healthy” or “unhealthy,” gently challenging our internalized ableism, and bringing an intentional awareness to how we move through this world.

Where Writing Towards Wholeness, our spring online course, focused on mental self-care and the act of writing, this summer course will be much more embodied, and we will climb down from our thinking/overthinking cerebral selves and into our seeing/hearing/tasting/smelling/touching physical selves.

Because this course is running over the summer (July 10 – August 20), and the summer is often full of weekend getaways and vacations and schedule disruptions, the course content will be delivered in the form of a PDF package at the beginning of the course, which will include writing by me (Tiffany Sostar), as well as content by special contributor Emily Goss, the author of Go Wild! and blogger at groweatgift.

The package will include a daily physical self-care checklist (modified from the request made by the participants in the spring course!), as well as a sensory scavenger hunt, with an optional photo scavenger hunt.

In addition to the PDF package, there will be regular emails and an optional weekly Google Hangout chat, as well as an opt-in private Facebook group for course participants.

Course Details

July 17 – August 27 / $125*
*$60 for Patreon supporters or returning participants, free for coaching clients, sliding scale available
Space is limited

Email me to register!

#100loveletters: Begin at the Beginning

#100loveletters: Begin at the Beginning

The #100loveletters challenge has officially started, and the first few posts have been amazing. I am so excited about the next 100 days, and honoured to be facilitating the challenge. To participate, just write yourself a love letter every day for 100 days. You can participate online by tagging your photo or post with the #100loveletters hashtag, or you can participate offline. Either way, I’ll be sending out 5 hand-written letters to randomly selected winners. Just email me to enter! You can also join the email list to receive weekly prompts, encouragement, and success stories!

I can’t take credit for the idea, though, and I was lucky enough to be able to interview my friend Stasha about her experience with the 100 love letters project when she designed and undertook it for herself last summer.

Tiffany – First of all, thank you so much for posting about your own experience of sending yourself love letters every day for 100 days. This project wouldn’t exist without you! How did you come up with the idea?

Stasha – Well, I had just broken up with my best friends, one of which was my partner. I was in the most difficult part of my phd dissertation, where I was trying to not lose myself in the formula of academic writing.  I had just been safe enough to realize that I was never going to be a front-line youth worker any more, and this broke my heart. I wanted to be loved. I wanted to belong, not be tolerated. I wanted to survive my phd with my soul intact. Both of these people who I had broke up with had told me that I should take medication because of the symtoms that I have from feeling feelings very deeply. This hurt me. I agreed that I needed an intervention of love, in addition to my normal methods of coping and healing.

I wanted this love to come from me and be all about showing myself that it is a joy to love me, not a burden!

Tiffany – That piece about wanting to be loved, wanting to belong, wanting to survive… that really resonates for me.

Stasha – I combined the daily love letters with listing three things that I was thankful for.

Tiffany – I love that approach.

Stasha – Right? Intense livin’! For me belonging is spiritual, how we belong to something larger than ourselves, like community or nature.

Tiffany – Yes! I’m hoping a community will develop around this challenge.

One thing I felt anxious about as I was trying to figure out how to put your beautiful idea into a format I could share widely was not wanting to participate in weaponized positivity – all that really brutal messaging around “you have to love yourself first or nobody can love you” and “you have to find the silver lining.” I think it’s possible to work on loving yourself without also becoming complicit with that victim-blaming, aggressively positive-at-the-expense-of-all-else stuff, but how did you navigate that in your journey?

Stasha – Ooooooo yes, I like this question. Writing love letters to yourself is so romantic because I know what Stasha likes, I know all her symbols, I know that if I write ‘think positive’ when she is feeling suicidal, that she will get super mad at me invalidating her experience. I said things I was thankful for not grateful for because the idea of gratitude has been ruined for me by the charity model.

It has been my experience that only privileged people demand positivity, and that this positivity erases oppression. Some of the things I was thankful for were ‘cats exist’ or ‘I listened to the river today.’ Fuck positivity, there is research that pessimists are happier because wehave our assumptions validated more! Joy transcending sorrow, because the sorrow is part of it.

Tiffany – Totally! I think that for myself, developing a concept of self-love and self-care that *included* my gloom, my sadness, my trauma (separated from the topic of healing – I am often working towards healing, but allowing myself to love myself and care for myself *regardless* of whether I “healed” or not was a turning point) – that inclusive shift felt a lot healthier and more sustainable for me than the idea that I had to fix myself first, or that the love would fix me.

Stasha – Yes! I recognize the Gloom Fairy as a way of recognizing this concept!

A lot of my love letters were about confronting things I do that are destructive to relationships. I did lots of art about how I could be a better listener and interupt less. I focused on what could help me with the feelings behind my interupting.

Tiffany – Confrontational love letters – yes! Love that is self-aware, and that holds us to the standard we want to meet (not the standard others have set for us). That feels like an important thing to bring into this project, and to the challenge.

Stasha – I did a lot of weaving (of paper and ribbons) and a lot of fairies stitching my automical heart back together. A lot of vines growing out of letters, roots and such.

Best kind of love, working on a never ending self-healing project.

Tiffany – Connective imagery in the art. I like that. Finding roots, finding new growth, finding healing. And fairies. ❤ ❤ ❤

Shiri Eisner, who is one of my favourite authors and bisexual activists and academics, has been posting recently about the problems with validation culture, and how not all behaviours should be validated – some of them need to be confronted. What you say above about lovingly coaching yourself into more constructive relationship patterns fits with what Shiri’s been posting recently.

Did you find it difficult to stick with the love letters over a long period of time?

Stasha – I wanted a role model for this kind of love. Love with great intension. One letter, I tried to draw myself with long flowing turquoise sea foam hair. Because my art skills are stick people, it ended up looking like a beard, so I went with it and wrote a poem about being a queer mermaid with a beautiful sea foam beard! When you write to yourself, you know about the ‘mistakes’ and if the acceptance and sentiments expressed in the letters are real! It’s high stakes!

Tiffany – I hadn’t considered that aspect of “mistakes” before. I think that’s really relevant. You’re right about it being high stakes!

Stasha – I was so fucking anxious that I was going to let myself down by not following through. It got worse when I told other people about the idea and they were shocked at the commitment. This feedback helped me see the fierce way I love though, because I have totally done things like this for other people.

It was a great grounding experience to create the letters and it was really fucking nice to get a love letter every day!!! If I was really sad one day, I would write something that I had to look forward to, like visiting a dog or hiking or a great breakfast. It was so nice to be able to respond IN THE NOW because I needed love to get through that summer. Now it is wonderful to be able to look through a stack of love if I forget how much I love me.

Part of what I was/am working on is self-regulation or ways that I calm myself. So this was great for that.

Some letters were just lists of things I didn’t hate. Like cake. And rivers.

Tiffany – That’s really inspiring, and encouraging. And I think you’re right about the way that we often love fiercely when we’re loving someone else, but we don’t often bring the same intention and joyful generosity to ourselves. A long project like this (100 days is a lot!) allows for ups and downs, sad days and happy days, long letters and post-it notes. It’s a different project than a week would be. (Not that a week isn’t valuable – just different.)

Stasha – That is me being positive! Yes I wanted to turn that love inwards for a bit. The phd really messes with your sense of time, 6 years doing a project! I think the scale was partly about that and partly about the scale of my losses and grief from the five years proceeding the break ups.

Also I am a huge research nerd and I love a huge pile of data!

Tiffany – Yes. I can relate to that.

I do relationship coaching, and one thing that I often think as I read the books or take the courses, is how applicable many of the strategies can be to our relationship with ourselves – offering charitable interpretation, maintaining clear and compassionate boundaries, meeting needs, bringing awareness, intention, and compassion to the relationship. But we rarely talk about our relationship with ourselves in those nuanced terms. At least not in the spaces I’ve encountered.

I also know, for myself, that I am a slow and cyclical learner. I need time with a project before it sinks in. I need to be able to circle around it many times before I feel safe with it, let alone anything resembling comfortable.

Stasha – Yes, that is one part of your work that I really admire, turn this strategies towards self! I wish I had done this project when I was 15 years old. I plan to do it several more times before I die. 

Tiffany – This does seem like a project that has value in repetition. I am also curious (because I’m a research nerd too!) about how it would feel in each different season. (Maybe I will run the challenge once a year over the next four years, in each season.)

Did you run into negative reactions to the project?

Stasha – It is very meta with the levels of awareness. Every one was encouraging. It made me sad how many people said they wanted to do it for themselves but didn’t. Makes me sad because I think a huge part of oppression and abuse is the messages about how we don’t deserve that/are unlovable. So it is a revolution at many levels. Some people wanted me to share them publicly, and I was like ‘f off’ this is between me and me. We need our privacy!

I was afraid that people would think I was selfish, and I worried about that less and less as the love rained down on me!

Tiffany – Yes! That part about privacy is huge, and is another thing that I felt/feel some anxiety about with turning this into a social media thing. I’ll make a point of finding ways to make it clear that this challenge is open to anyone, even if they don’t share anything publicly. Thank you for that reminder.

I have been thinking about Feminista Jones’ recent tweet thread about how angry men get when women accept compliments, and I wondered if any of that would land on a project like this. But I think your point about the level of fucks given dropping as the love rains down is really relevant, and lovely. (But it is another reason to make it clear that participation does not have to be public to be valid.)

I’m doing a little give-away as part of the challenge – I’ll select five random entries from folks who self-select into the contest, and send them hand-written letters. I had originally set it up so that the way you enter was by emailing me a link to your tweet/post/blog/instagram/whatever. But I’m going to change that, and you can enter just by emailing me with or without a link/public sharing.

 

 

 

I wanted to be loved. I wanted to belong, not be tolerated.

 

I wanted this love to come from me and be all about showing myself that it is a joy to love me, not a burden!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joy transcending sorrow, because the sorrow is part of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When you write to yourself, you know about the ‘mistakes’ and if the acceptance and sentiments expressed in the letters are real! It’s high stakes!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It made me sad how many people said they wanted to do it for themselves but didn’t. … I think a huge part of oppression and abuse is the messages about how we don’t deserve that/are unlovable. So it is a revolution at many levels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post is part of the #100loveletters challenge.

The challenge runs from June 21 to September 29, and you are welcome to join at any time. You can join the mailing list to receive prompts, links, encouragement, and success stories, and you can participate whether you share publicly or not.

#100LoveLetters

#100LoveLetters

Every summer, attendance at my Writing in the Margins workshops dwindles as people head out on vacation or hide from the heat. This year, like most years, the workshops will be on hiatus for the summer.

This year, unlike every previous year, I’ve got something planned to keep us writing through the summer.

The #100loveletters challenge starts June 21, and is open to anyone, at no charge!

It’s really easy, and really hard – for 100 days, from June 21 to September 29, write yourself a love letter. It can be short, it can be long, it can be a stick figure or a sonnet or a flower or a song. Share your pictures, comments, thoughts, and stories in the hashtag on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or in your blog, and find a community of people practicing a summer of daily self-love.

You can join the email list to receive writing prompts, encouragement, and success stories.

Writing Towards Wholeness

Writing Towards Wholeness

This book is an invitation for you to use the simple act of writing as a way of reimagining who you are or remembering who you were. To use writing to discover and fulfill your deepest desire. To accept pain, fear, uncertainty, strife. And to find, too, a place of safety, security, serenity, and joyfulness. To claim your voice, to tell your story.  

 – Louise DeSalvo, Writing as a Way of Healing

This course, Writing towards Wholeness: Expressive Writing for Self-Care and Healing, extends DeSalvo’s invitation (and draws on her excellent work, along with the work of many other fantastic writers). The course starts on May 8, and runs until June 19. In these six weeks together, we will learn what expressive writing is, how to use it, and how to care for ourselves through the process of writing our difficult stories.

Each week will include video content, writing prompts, exercises, and a scheduled live chat. The course is designed to be modular – if you’re not interested in the behind-the-scenes lit reviews, discussion of the hows-and-whys, or extra information, you can skip the video content. If you’re just interested in learning about the topic and trying it out later, you can skip the prompts and exercises.

The course is capped at 10 participants, and I’ll be available for individual cheerleading, coaching, and that gentle butt-kick of accountability for each participant individually, in addition to the content available to the group. As of May 3, there are 4 spots still available.

The time commitment for the course is flexible, but you’ll get the most out of it if you can spend 10-20 minutes writing, 4-6 days per week, in addition to the few minutes it takes to read the emails. The video content will be anywhere from 3-15 minutes per week, and the live chat will be 45-minutes per week. With an investment of 1-2 hours per week, you should see some significant progress. And if you do every exercise and read every link and watch every video, you could spend 3-4 hours per week (though I have absolutely no expectation of that!)

The cost for the course is $60, with sliding scale available. It’s $45 for patrons of my Patreon, and it’s free for coaching clients.

If you’d like to sign up, email me!

Week One:

  1. Introduction to the course and the core resource books
  2. How expressive writing works (and the limits of its utility)
  3. Designing a self-care plan

In Week One, I’ll give you a mini review of the current state of the scientific research into the healing effects of expressive writing. Expressive writing has been studied as a tool for healing since the first paper was published on the topic in 1986, and there have been hundreds of studies since. We won’t talk about all of those studies, but I’ll give you a brief overview to help ground you in the science behind the practice. We’ll also talk about the limits of expressive writing, and alternatives to writing. Drawing, dancing, mind-mapping, and other artistic forms of expression are welcome, and we’ll touch on the research that supports their benefits. In Week One, we’ll also bump up against the limits of the research. The fact is that we don’t know why expressive writing does and doesn’t work, and although we’re getting closer to answers, they’re still in the future.

You’ll also begin to design a personalized self-care plan in Week One. We’ll talk about how to identify your needs, and set yourself up for success.

Week Two:

  1. Narrative trajectories
  2. Personal anthologies

In Week Two, we’ll introduce the narrative side of the project. Drawing on David Denborough’s work with “everyday narrative therapy,” you’ll start to identify and explore your own life story. We’ll talk about personal origin stories, and how to create an anthology of your own formative positive moments. These positive story will work with your self-care plan to help give you a solid grounding in self-compassion and non-judgmental self-awareness. For many of us, the negative stories are easier to believe and easier to call to mind, so although this week is focused on the positives, it’s definitely going to be a bit uncomfortable at times. Good thing we have a self-care plan in place!

Week Three:

  1. Writing and trauma recovery
  2. Externalization
  3. Other benefits of expressive writing

Week Three will dig deeper into the specifics of how writing can be used to work with trauma and other issues (such as focus at work or school, or managing depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues). We’ll talk about how trauma impacts the body, and some of the research into the health effects of trauma. We’ll also talk about externalization, and start practicing seeing problems as being something outside of ourselves, rather than something inherent to ourselves. If that sounds weird and counterintuitive, don’t worry. I’ve got exercises and simple explanations to make it more accessible and engaging.

Week Four:

  1. Expressive writing
  2. Self-care

This is it. We’re doin’ it! In Week Four, we’ll put our self-care plan into full effect, and engage in four days of 15-20 minutes of writing about an emotional topic. If you’re a trauma survivor, don’t worry – you don’t have to write about the scariest or most challenging – we’ll talk about a wide range of potential topics and you can write about whatever feels right for you. You will have access to all of the course materials even after the course wraps up, so you can always come back to it as many times as you want.

Week Five:

  1. Reframing, reshaping, recovering

We’ll take the body of writing (or drawing, or talking, or dancing) that you’ve generated over the last month and start thinking about how it fits into our narrative trajectory – the path we want our lives to take and the path we see ourselves having already taken. We’ll talk about how to use the skills and tools we’ve gained so far to reshape and reframe our stories, and to use these narrative strategies to recover from traumas and difficulties.

Week Six:

  1. Tools for a sustainable practice
  2. Discussion and wrap-up

In our final week, we’ll talk about how to use these tools going forward.

I am so excited about this course. I have used writing as a coping and healing tool for decades, and writing has gotten me through some of the worst times in my life, and helped me appreciate some of the best. Telling our stories intentionally, compassionately, and wholeheartedly has the potential to change the way we see ourselves in the world, to help us feel centered and strong in the stories of our own lives.

Using Tarot (and other woo) as a Self-Storying Tool

Using Tarot (and other woo) as a Self-Storying Tool

This is a companion post to last week’s Tarot, oracle cards, and other woo. This writing is supported by the amazing people on my Patreon, and access to these posts is a week early for patrons. If you enjoy my work, please consider supporting it!

Last week’s post was about how I developed an interest in tarot, and how I used it as a self-care and survival strategy during a difficult time in my life, and have continued to use it since.

Today’s post is about how you can use tarot (or oracle cards, or runes, or whatever other visual or tangible or guiding woo you’re into) to help you understand and heal your inner narratives.

This is also something I offer coaching clients, so if it interests you and you want some help with it, that’s a thing that can happen! Send me an email if that’s a think you want to arrange.

But this post is about how to do it yourself.

First, and critically – it doesn’t matter if you believe the cards are magic or not. This exercise isn’t about telling the future or anything supernatural – it’s about using cards as prompt generators to help you tell your own stories, and creative lenses to help you view your own experiences.

I am not going to judge you either way – you can see this process as connecting to something mystical and spiritual, or you can see it as connecting to your own subconscious, or you can see it as some kind of blend or blur between the two, and that’s between you and the cards (or runes, or whatever. I’m going to keep saying cards for the sake of simplicity, and also because tarot is the most easily accessible method for most folks).

This is an introduction to some exercises focused on claiming your narrative, and centering yourself within your story.

It’s all about you, the author. You, the protagonist. You, the hero.

So often, we do not see ourselves as the main characters in our own stories and we do not hear our own voice within the story. Especially if we are marginalized and subjected to a constant stream of stereotypes and toxic narratives, it can be very difficult to find our way back to the centre of our own stories.

This is one narrative tool that can help centre you in your own story.

So, choose your deck.

If you don’t want to spend any money on it, and don’t have a deck already, there are tarot apps (I had the Golden Thread app on my phone for a while but I like physical cards better), and there are lots of random tarot card generator websites.

If you’re buying a deck, spend some time in a bookstore or online shop (I love Little Red Tarot‘s shop, myself). Pay attention to how the artwork feels. Read a little bit (or a lot) about what the deck creator was hoping to accomplish. The artwork has a strong influence on how the deck feels, and a steampunk deck tells different stories than a manga deck, and they both tell different stories than a high-concept art deck. Try to find a deck that feels comfortable, with artwork that feels welcoming.

My own personal advice would be to find a deck whose creator has politics you agree with. For me, that means I want decks that are, if not explicitly queer, then definitely queer-friendly. Knowing that the deck’s creator is queer and/or feminist, and aware of issues of cultural appropriation, is really important to me.

Gender is also a big deal. There’s a lot of gender essentialism in a lot of woo spaces, and if that bothers you, or if that will trip you up by hooking into some toxic internalized narratives you’re struggling to clear, keep it in mind.

This is why you’ll never find a Rider-Waite deck in my hands, because I struggle too much with cis and heteronormativity in my own life, and that extra step of reinterpreting the cards outside of their normative origins is just too much for me. (The exception might be for Trung Nguyen’s reinterpretation of the Rider-Waite, but I don’t own that deck yet.)

Although there are a lot of people doing amazing work around queering the tarot, it’s an active and ongoing process. Make it easy for yourself.

Similarly, a lot of tarot decks are full of people who are very white, and very thin. Racism and cultural appropriation and normative beauty standards and ableism, just like gender essentialism and sexism, are all over the damn place. This is meant to be a practice that centres you, not one that further marginalizes you.

There are some great tarot blogs written by QTPOC tarot folks, and they are worth seeking out. I particularly love Brownstargirl Tarot and Asali Earthwork.

Whatever you need to see in your deck, seek it out. You do not need to force yourself to tell stories with a deck that doesn’t represent you, and this is a practice of self-storying. Be demanding. Take up space.

And keep in mind that your deck doesn’t have to be full of humans. The Wild Unknown is one of my favourite decks because it’s all animals. Sometimes we’re able to see stories more clearly when we get a little bit outside of our anthropocentric framing.

Think of your deck as a collaborative coauthor in the stories you’re going to tell for yourself, to yourself, about yourself.

Find a coauthor whose voice you enjoy.

(There have been decks I thought I would absolutely love to tell stories with, and then just couldn’t. The most notable, and in my opinion tragic, example is Egypt Urnash’s Tarot of the Silicon Dawn, which is amazingly and delightfully queer and trans and full of delicious diversity, but for some reason it just never resonated for me. I gave that deck away to my sister, and they sass-talk each other regularly.)

Once you have your deck, start flipping through the cards. Which ones really appeal to you? Pull them out, and read up on them.

I’m pretty picky about where I get my tarot interpretations from. I have a couple books I really enjoy, but mostly I head over to Little Red Tarot, or I read the guidebooks that come with the cards, and offer the deck creator’s own spin on things. (The exception to this is for my Wild Unknown deck – I prefer Carrie Mallon’s interpretations over the guidebook.)

Google around, and again, be picky. You don’t have to settle for anything less than decks and interpretations that fully and clearly acknowledge your relevance and presence.

Trust your intuition, too. This is your story. If there’s something in the imagery of a card that really jumps out at you, that’s worth noting, even if no other blog or book confirms your interpretation.

Once you’ve found the cards that really sing for you, try arranging them. Can you tell a story with those cards? Do they connect to memories or experiences or feelings?

Think of the cards as doorways into your own personal library, recommendations for which of your personal books to read next. They don’t tell new stories, but they might suggest taking a look at things from a new angle. And what you see in the cards can tell you a lot about what you’re focused on, worried about, or needing to process right now.

Play around with various spreads.

Try pulling a card a day for a week or two, and see how it feels. You can either do a random draw, or you can flip through the deck and pick the card you like best for the day, or some combination, depending on your mood. Do you notice a theme? Do you have a strong emotional reaction to any of the cards?

Try a simple two card spread – the situation, and the commentary.

Try my favourite three card spread – the situation in the centre, the right path on the right, and the wrong path on the left. How does that feel?

If you want a book of spreads, I highly recommend Beth Maiden’s PDF, available in the shop linked above. One of the spreads in there (the complete circle spread) was actually designed for me when I commissioned a reading from her. It’s really lovely.

Once you’re familiar with your cards, and with yourself as a reader, start telling (and exploring) your stories.

Think of a question you want to answer for yourself, or a situation you want to explore.

Shuffle your cards, and start laying them out.

You can do a past-present-future spread for the situation, and see how it feels. Are those the right cards for you? Spend some time with it. How does it feel? How do you react to the cards?

Does the future position reflect your fear? Your hope? Neither? Can you use that card as a prompt to write a vision statement for your hopes, dreams, fears, or anxieties about the future?

Does the past position reflect your pain? Your joy? Neither? Can it be used as a prompt to jog your memory, and help you reframe experiences?

Pull more cards if you need to, switch cards around, and engage in the conversation.

What do you need to know?

What does your reaction to the cards tell you about yourself in this moment, thinking about this situation?

Keep a little tarot journal to document your process.

There are two pieces of advice I would recommend, whether you approach the tarot as magical or metaphorical –

First, try to stay focused on a single question or theme at a time. You can follow that theme down a rabbit hole of related questions, and that can be very productive (ask a question, then realize the card has piqued your interest in another question, etc.) but don’t ask ten questions at once. It gets overwhelming and confusing, and, often, when we are trying to ask a whole bunch all at once it’s because we are frustrated, feeling out of control, and uncertain of ourselves.

Use the cards as a way to narrow your focus and gain a sense of self-direction. This is your story. You are the protagonist of this story. You don’t have to do it all at once.

If you’re really struggling with finding a single question because you don’t know how to narrow your focus, do a single card draw and then just sit with that for a few minutes. Make yourself a mug of tea and think. Is there a single question that card could connect to?

And second, pay attention to how the process feels for you, and make sure that it is bracketed in ways that help you feel safe and stable. Bracketing is a practice of having some sort of ritual that starts the process and ends the process – for me, with tarot, it’s the shuffling. I shuffle when I start, and I shuffle again when I’m finished. I also keep each deck in some kind of container – a purple cloth for my Shadowscapes deck, the boxes they came in for most of my other decks, and a little plexi case for my Tea and Empathy cards. Taking them out and putting them back brackets the process for me.

I have noticed in my own tarot-enhanced narrative practice that, at certain times, the cards feel less like a coauthor of my story and more like a dictator of my fate. Particularly when I’m feeling out of control and anxious, my superstitions get in the way, and I start scanning the cards for some magical truth and a message from the future. Rather than feeling centered in my own story in those moments, I feel completely separate and silent – waiting for some supernatural hand to author my story for me. In those moments, pulling random tarot cards is not the most effective or holistic self-storying tool. Recognizing that I no longer feel centered in my story, and that I no longer feel like it is my story, is important (but difficult!) It requires a lot of self-awareness to notice our superstitions taking over. It is more effective, and gives me back a sense of agency over my narrative, to draw cards intentionally rather than randomly, or even to use other methods (like free-writing in the my journal, or talking things through with a friend or counselor). Using tarot as a narrative tool doesn’t mean you can only use tarot. You have many stories, and they can be told in many ways.

Good luck, my friends! Go forth and tell yourself your own stories.

Resources for further reading:

Tarot Reading For Skeptics, Cynics, Nonbelievers And Side-Eyers – this post by Lesley Kinzel explores the history of tarot, answers some common questions, and offers a few suggestions for decks (including the Gummi Bear Tarot, which sounds hilarious and adorable).

Beth Maiden’s Favourite Tarot Decks – My favourite tarot blogger talking about her favourite tarot decks.

#TarotSoWhite: A Conversation about Diversity in Our Cards – Another Little Red Tarot post, introducing and beginning to explore the #tarotsowhite hashtag and the important conversations happening around the issue of diversity in tarot.

Gender Essentialism in the Pagan Community – A short but insightful Tumblr post that highlights some of the gender essentialism that shows up in a lot of woo spaces.

Everyone’s Spirit Animal Should be Cultural Sensitivity – This post by Samantha Gross is a brief intro into cultural appropriation and respectful alternatives. It’s written by a white person for white people, which is important because people with privilege need to take responsibility for educating other people with privilege. However, if it’s a topic you want to learn more about (which I highly recommend), it’s worth seeking out Indigenous writers sharing their wisdom and experience. Native Appropriations is a great place to start.

Autostraddle’s Tarot tag is full of great posts by queer writers.

What Makes a ‘Feminist’ Tarot? – this post from Autostraddle is a great introduction to recognizing and finding feminist tarot decks. (And it’s by Beth from Little Red Tarot!)