Interview with Nina Lee Braden
Conducted by Diane Wilkes
I first met Nina Lee Braden when we were both attending a workshop with Mary K. Greer and Rachel Pollack at Omega, but feel I really got to know her, as so many have, online. I have always been impressed with her insights and openness when it comes to the tarot, so am not surprised that this interview evinces both of these qualities. Be sure to check out Nina Lee's wonderful website
Diane: How did you get into tarot?
Nina Lee: I got into Tarot in a roundabout way. I was taking a graduate course in contemporary American poetry. In doing some research for a paper on Adrienne Rich, I ran across a reference to Tarot cards. I was vaguely intrigued. A few days later, I stopped in a major chain bookstore. There was a large display of Tarot cards at the cash register. Impulsively, I bought two decks. I began playing with the decks and was immediately hooked.
Diane: What was your first deck? And which books were most influential on your tarot path?
Nina Lee: My first decks were Tarot Classic and Hanson-Roberts Tarot. I mainly worked with the Hanson-Roberts Tarot because I found it easier to read a deck with pictorial minors than one with regular pips. Two of my early favorite decks were the Aquarian and the Universal Waite.
When I first started studying Tarot, I didn’t know anyone who knew anything about the cards. I went to the bookstore and just stared, lost. I bought several books, a number of books, but the best of the early books that I picked out on my own was Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s The Mystical Tarot. It is a very unobtrusive little mass-market paperback, but it is very well done, and it was a good early resource for me.
I was fortunate fairly early in my Tarot studies to be urged to read Rachel Pollack’s 78 Degrees of Wisdom (then in two volumes) and Mary Greer’s Tarot for Your Self. These books both opened me up to a much wider concept of just what Tarot is and can be.
A little later, but still significantly early, I began working with the Voyager Tarot. I studied briefly with its creator, James Wanless, and I still use a lot of his techniques and approaches.
Diane: You mentioned once being a born again Christian in college. How did that impact your approach to tarot?
Nina Lee: My religious/spiritual path has been long and winding. I know that my recent and current spiritual path and Tarot are closely linked, but I’m not quite sure of how my early religious experience relates to Tarot. In one way, it serves as a detour, but on the other hand, I learned many valuable lessons which continue to support me today.
I was raised in a mainline semi-liberal Protestant church in a small Southern town. Very early in life, I developed an intense hunger for all things spiritual. I went to church every time that I could, more often than the rest of my family who thought me something of a religious fanatic. I read my Bible daily. I prayed regularly. I read a lot of inspirational books. Interestingly enough, at this time, I taught myself how to read playing cards from a little pocket book that I picked up at the grocery store. I would read playing cards at church retreats. I was also interested in magic, and read the only book on magic that my small hometown library had. At the time (as now), I saw no conflict between these interests.
I had a born-again experience when I was sixteen. Through a series of coincidences, I ended up going to a church school for college, but this was a different denomination from the one that I had been raised in, a more conservative and evangelical denomination. I put aside my interest in reading cards and magic at this time, feeling that they had no place in my new spiritual life.
During my freshman year in college, I converted to the more conservative and evangelical Protestant denomination. What attracted me about them was their intensity, their enthusiasm. I’ve always been attracted to enthusiasm, to intensity. I suppose that it comes from being a Scorpio. I had been frustrated with my family and with the church in which I was raised because although they were very nice people and a very nice congregation, they seemed passionless to me. In retrospect, I am certain that they did have passion; they just were reserved about expressing it. It is a part of middle-class Southern mores to hold back, to not show emotions. I confused the failure to show emotion with the failure to feel emotion.
During my early teen years, I began to suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Of course, at the time, I didn’t know that I was suffering from SAD, and, even if I had, I don’t know what I could have done about it. All I knew was that every fall and winter, I would go into a deep despair. For months each year, I would live in a vast quagmire of darkness. Every action felt like slow motion. Every effort seemed monumental. I felt as if I was living in quicksand, continually being sucked into the ground.
The first year after my born-again experience, I did not suffer from SAD. This is not unusual. Sometimes SAD sufferers will skip a year. At the time, I thought that being born again had delivered me permanently from my depression (which I did not even realize was depression).
In only a few years, I became disillusioned with my faith. The symptoms of SAD came back. I continued to pray, to study, and to worship, but my joy was gone. My conviction was gone. I became spiritually lost, and I was devastated. I cannot tell you how terrible, how traumatizing this was for me. I had based my entire existence upon m spirituality, and it was gone. I could no longer believe as I had believed. I wanted to believe, but I couldn’t, didn’t.
The symptoms of SAD grew increasingly severe. I contemplated suicide repeatedly, several winters in succession. I continued on like this for many years. I went to grad school. I got married. I had children. But still my life was empty. Still I lived half the year in a fog of depression.
And then I discovered Tarot. Tarot was not a permanent cure for SAD, but I found that when I played with the cards, for those few hours at least, the clouds of depression were gone. I had a few free hours, a time of recess, so that even when the SAD returned later that day, I could handle it better because of my brief “recess.”
I started playing more and more with Tarot, as a form of self therapy. After a year or two of playing with the Tarot, SAD made the news, and I thought, “Oh, that’s what I have.” I consulted with a therapist who confirmed my self-diagnosis. I began using a light box, and about eighty percent of my SAD symptoms disappeared. My life has not been the same since. I cannot tell you what a difference my light box has made in my life. It is a cliché and a pun, but it really is like light and dark.
When I started using a light box, I did not stop with my Tarot work. Although I no longer need for Tarot to be therapy for me, I find that self therapy with Tarot is still one of my favorite uses of it.
Diane: I have also found the Tarot very therapeutic. I know that I am who I am today because of my work with the Tarot. The fact that it's enjoyable kept me coming back to it.
Nina Lee: By this time, I had returned to the church of my childhood. This stay was not to last, however. I was betrayed by two members of my Sunday School class, and I found it impossible to worship in good spirit with them in the same room. I then began going to a Unitarian Universalist Church. Through the freedom allowed by the Unitarian Universalist Church, I began to piece together a spirituality of my own (to paraphrase Virginia Woolf). It is a unique religion, a personal one, but my spiritual life is once again vital and flourishing and satisfying, and Tarot is very much a part of it.
In fact, if I had to name any one thing that is the lynchpin or cornerstone of my personal faith, it would be the Tarot. Tarot is about balance and cycles and about taking a journey, and that is what my spirituality is about. I can’t imagine my life without Tarot. It frames and shapes my world view. It teaches me daily and inspires me whenever I open myself to inspiration.
Diane: My memory is foggy. Didn't you write a thesis that involved the tarot?
Nina Lee: At one time, I was working on a Ph.D. in English. I didn’t really want a Ph.D. in English. What I really wanted was to go to seminary and to study there. However, there is no seminary in the city where I live, and through the terms of my divorce, I could not move until my children were eighteen. I did get some funds from my ex-husband to go back to school, though, so I decided to work on another degree in English as a sort of second-best choice. (I already had an M.A. in English.)
I finished all of the work for the Ph.D. except for the dissertation. By now, I knew that my heart was not really in academic study of English. However, I had invested a lot of time and money toward the degree, and I hated to quit. I thought that if I could write a doctoral dissertation on Tarot that I might be all right. I came up with a rather nice dissertation idea about contemporary American women poets and Tarot. In my research, I found six contemporary women poets who used Tarot in their poems.
I wrote the part of the dissertation on the Tarot in two months. In three years, I could not manage to finish the part of the dissertation on the poetry. Finally, I gave up the effort. My heart was in Tarot, not literature, at least not academic study of literature. (I still remain an enthusiastic reader and lover of literature on a non-academic level.)
For more on my experience in struggling with this unfinished dissertation, see my article in The Tarot Journal which is republished on my web site.
Diane: You were very active on GEnie, an internet group, in the earlier days of the Internet. Tell me about your involvement.
I bought my first Tarot deck and a modem for my computer in the same month, August, 1990. I started out on Prodigy but later moved to GEnie. In those days, there was no real internet as we know it. Instead, there were thousands of local bulletin boards and a few major online services, such as CompuServe, GEnie, Prodigy, and this upstart service called AOL.
Since I didn’t know anyone who was into Tarot, the online services were great. I found bulletin boards where I could ask questions on Tarot. GEnie was marvelous. The people on GEnie were witty and wise, for the most part. Ellen Cannon Reed was on GEnie, and I got to know her. Phyllis Vega was on GEnie, and she and I became friends. (This was before Phyllis and Trish MacGregor wrote Power Tarot although Trish was already an accomplished writer of mysteries.) This is also where I met Michele Jackson, and many others who have gone on to do other things, Tarot-related and non-Tarot related.
I posted a lot on GEnie, led a lot of bulletin board discussions there. Eventually, I became an unpaid assistant in some areas, and as part of my duties I would do live chats on Tarot and other topics. Eventually I became an assistant sysop and later head sysop of the New Age RoundTable (GEnie’s term for forums).
Eventually GEnie’s heyday peaked and waned. That upstart AOL graded the lion’s share of the market, and the World Wide Web boomed. I’ve never found anything online which came close to GEnie. Part of me longs for the old days, but part of me is content to have fond memories of those times.
Diane: Some people might not know that your book, Tarot for Self-Discovery, also started out on the Internet. Could you tell me how the book evolved from the very beginning?
Nina Lee: On GEnie, we had a very close, very tight Tarot community. After GEnie, I missed that. I missed the Tarot conversation but I also missed the friendships. I decided to try and recreate that magic with an email group. I called the group Tarot of Self Discovery (“of” because “for” was too long to fit the character limitation). I invited everyone from the old days that I had a valid email address for.
A few came. But it wasn’t the same. Some strangers joined, and that was all right. I decided to see what I could do with this little group of people, and so I started writing Tarot exercises for us to do as a group. The idea was for us to take turns posting and working exercises. We would learn Tarot, we would learn about ourselves, and we would learn to know each other.
That’s not quite how it turned out, but I found that I enjoyed writing original Tarot exercises and that people responded to the exercises that I wrote. The exercises seemed to develop a life, a power, and identity of their own. I was truly taken by surprise. When the opportunity came to write a book, I knew that the exercises should be the basis for that book.
Diane: What have people shared with you about their experience with Tarot for Self Discovery?
Nina Lee: The most universal response to the exercises has been one of surprise. The exercises look very simple, and they are. People just go into the exercises with an expectation of, “Okay, I’ll give this a try and see what happens.” What often happens is a powerful, intense, and unexpected reaction. I get a lot of “I can’t believe it!”
A friend emailed me recently about having done the Lunar Consciousness exercise. In this one, you look at the Moon in the sky, and you also look in the Tarot deck for cards with moons on them. You do a lot of thinking about what the Moon means to you, and you do a creative visualization. Hers was incredibly powerful, amazing. It was full of all sorts of insights for her personally but insights also which apply to all of us.
The other reaction that I get a lot of is talk about how much fun the exercises are. You do all of this intense, intense inner work, and you gain all of these tremendous insights, and it’s fun at the same time.
I was on the radio recently for a radio interview, and the host asked if we could do one of the exercises live on the air. I said, “Sure.” I chose “I’m the Top.” This is one of my very favorite exercises to do in a public situation because it is fun and light, but even light exercises like this one can pack a powerful wallop. The host had a fun time doing the exercise, but he said, “I can see how I can take this and work with this for a long time.” There’s much more to those exercises than appears on the surface.
It even happens to me. I write these exercises, but they still shock me, and I find them fun too, even though I know what they are designed to do.
Click here for part two of the interview with Nina Lee Braden.
Interview and page © 2003 Diane Wilkes