A Report: The New York Readers' Studio by Debbie Lake
The New York Readers' Studio was an exciting and interesting idea. When Wald and Ruth Ann Amberstone first mentioned it to me, I signed up right away. The idea of a conference that focused on workshops that would appeal to advanced readers seemed brilliant. Having signed up, I then had to wait a number of months for the actual event to take place, and believe me, I'm not very good at delayed gratification.
When April 25th rolled around, I made sure I got up bright and early to start my journey to Tarot land. After a train ride, what seemed like an interminable wait for the bus, and a bus ride - I was there. And the first faces I saw were those of James Wells and Chris Asselin - both friends from the Chicago ITS Conference and from several online Tarot groups. I was thrilled to see them both and hugs were exchanged all around. Nina Lee Braden passed by and greeted us on her way to grab a bite to eat and her wonderfully warm drawl and ebullient personality were a charming surprise. We were shortly joined by Mark McElroy (whose voice I could listen to forever) and we had a great time catching up. In my search for coffee and a bagel, I ran into Rachel Pollack and her friend Zoe Matoff - both familiar, friendly faces. I managed to pry myself away to register and get my goody bag - and what a goody bag it was. Llewellyn had given every attendee a copy of the Quest Tarot (a generous gift), a copy of one of the Majors only decks by Lo Scarabeo (mine was the Majors-only Tarot of the Origins), and a one chapter preview of Christine Jette's upcoming book Professional Tarot along with several informational pages. By the time the opening session began at 1:00 I was psyched and ready to go.
The Readers Studio opened up with Wald Amberstone welcoming us all and introducing Rachel Pollack, Nina Lee Braden, Mary Greer, and Barbara Moore from Llewellyn Publications. He then spent a few minutes explaining the plan for the weekend and how the days would be structured. The turnout was wonderful. Wald and Ruth Ann's goal was to have 78 attendees and I believe they got 72. Barbara Moore stood up next and spoke about Llewellyn's commitment to intermediate and advanced tarot readers and tarot professionals. We also gave her a round of applause for Llewellyn's generosity and continuing support of the tarot community. Next Ruth Ann Amberstone walked to the dais, resplendent in a peacock colored jacket and holding her cane (everyone was glad to see that she was on the mend after her surgery), and explained the foundation readings we would be doing and how they fit into the overall theme for the weekend. She also made some housekeeping announcements.
The first portion of the afternoon was devoted to interviews with the three presenters. Each had selected three questions they wanted to answer for us, as well as allowing the participants to ask questions afterwards. The first presenter up was Mary Greer. I actually learned some things about Mary which I hadn't realized before. She is a Priestess/Hierophant in the Fellowship of Isis, Iseum of Isis Orea. She believes that "each person who comes to you has all the answers in themself" and sees herself as a mid-wife of the soul. She believes the tarot has "continually and constantly fascinated her to expand in any and all other areas". As a result of her work with tarot, Mary has found herself studying Renaissance Italy, French, and researching tarot and emotions. Her favorite deck is the Rider-Waite-Smith, which she sees as "an amazing synthesis of occult traditions" because of the Golden Dawn's incorporation of numerous traditions ranging from Freemasonry and alchemy to Rosicrucianism. And while Mary doesn't feel that it is necessary for Tarot readers to have a knowledge of Tarot history, she does feel it can be useful to have some familiarity with Renaissance cosmology. Mary finds this especially interesting when she is trying to find ways to blend Renaissance symbology with modern symbology. I thought she made an interesting point when she mentioned using two different decks such as Rider-Waite-Smith and Etteilla and seeing how their meanings form a continuum for possible interpretations. And while she is not as familiar with the Thoth symbology, she does feel that it is a powerful deck, especially for magical correspondences. Mary shared some of her favorite books on tarot too: Paul Foster Case's Wisdom of the Ages, Crowley's Book of Thoth, 78 Degrees of Wisdom and Forest of Souls by Rachel Pollack, Jung and Tarot by Sallie Nichols and Tarot of the Magicians by Oswald Wirth. She finds it interesting and useful to reinterpret "old-fashioned" books to use with modern sensibilities.
Nina (pronounced Nine-a, not Neena) Lee Braden was the next interviewee. I know Nina Lee through her website, mailing lists and book (which doesn't really mean I know her at all). So I was very eager to learn more about her and the interview revealed a warm, friendly and humorous lady. She started off by admitting that Mary Greer and Rachel Pollack were her inspiration and it was a bit overwhelming to even consider doing a session at the same conference. To help her focus and allay some of her nervousness, Nina Lee asked professional readers and psychics what they wish someone had told them when they started out. This enabled her to create her session. Some of the responses she got included indicated that readings need structure and there is a difference between personal and universal symbols.
During the interview, Nina Lee shared that her tarot work has affected everything about her life; she even met her husband when he attended one of her tarot classes. Her spirituality seems to be summed up by the 78 tarot cards. She is currently teaching a tarot class in her home to 12 non-paying students. They meet every two weeks and have worked out an informal barter system in which her students bring her gifts or help with things around the house or whatever. She tried fruitlessly for some time to drum up paying students through ads in paper and radio. She eventually decided that a teacher without students isn't a teacher. So she began offering free classes to interested students. Another fact that emerged during the interview is that Nina Lee used to be an English teacher. She also finds it interesting that so many tarot readers are former English majors and thinks this is because English majors are trained to look for symbols in writing while Tarot readers look for symbols in the images. They dovetail nicely. She also believes that the American Transcendentalist movement influences tarot. As Nina Lee explained it, American Transcendentalists transformed into the New Thought School, which in turn influenced New Age thought and thus, Tarot.
interviewee was Rachel Pollack. I've taken several classes and workshops with
Rachel and, while I'm familiar with some of her approach and views on tarot, I
still found her interview revealing. As is her wont, Rachel did a wisdom
reading using the Shining Tribe Tarot to learn "what does Tarot want to teach
this weekend?" She drew the following cards:
Seven of Birds - intense communication
10 of Rivers - joyous partnerships & celebration
Eight of Rivers
- put on your spirit robes & dance
What a fabulous response and so appropriate to the entire feeling of the weekend. Rachel also explained her concept of wisdom readings and how working with the Tarot has exposed her to Kabbalah and other areas. She found it interesting that she had never heard of Kabbalah prior to her working with tarot, despite being raised in an orthodox Jewish household. It led her to experimental spirituality, which Rachel defines as very hands-on and allows you to use the Tarot in a non-traditional way to explore your spirituality. It is "exploring things beyond the pathways already laid out." Rachel also explained that while the tarot not might be a spiritual system on its own, its creators were exposed to a variety of sources and symbolism including astrology, Kabbalah, Platonism, etc and unconsciously use it to create a template or archetype (think of a cookie cutter without dough). This is what allows tarot to be so universal and fit so many different systems and traditions.
Once the interviews were completed, we did our foundation readings. We all paired up and did a reading about a matter that concerned our partner and vice versa. The point of this exercise was that on Sunday, after completing all the workshops, we would return to this reading and see how our newly acquired skills impacted on our readings. One interesting synchronicity was that both my partner and I drew the Page of Cups in our readings. We spent some time sharing our readings and chatting about our interpretations. Then Wald and Ruth Ann called a halt to the session and we had a lunch break. During the lunch break I had a chance to meet the people at my table whom I didn't know and to meet folks whose names I knew from online groups but didn't know in person.
When we returned after the lunch break, it was to bask in the wisdom of Mary Greer. Mary shared that she views her reading style as soul-reading or deep divination to positively enable the client. She is a mid-wife of the soul, "guiding them to bring their goals and options to light". Mary raised several eye-opening concepts during her session. Chief among them was the idea that tarot readers are not there to heal anyone; we're there to help them reach their own decisions and find their own inner wisdom. She also pointed out that when you experience a change in the vibe during a reading, you know you've touched upon an emotion. She describes readings as being a divine conversation, a personal dialogue as well as a time and place to move out of the mundane and ordinary to a safe place where they can express their inner wisdom. We are not there to fix things for the client, we are there to provide the thread which allows them to journey to the inner labyrinth of themselves.
She describes readers as pattern recognizers who have to put our own judgments aside while remaining discerning. We are symbol interpreters. Wherever there is an external symbol, we need to look within ourselves and see what corresponds to that symbol. We also guide clients to find the symbolic meanings within themselves. These inner symbols can often serve as a snapshot of a memory which has great meaning for them. By connecting with that inner meaning, we allow them to awaken hope and anticipation in their life. We sensitize them to look for these symbols and respond to them. We are awakening their awareness and priming them to embrace these symbols acting in their lives. However, as Mary pointed out, we all project our own views and bring out own experiences to the cards. We need to allow clients to bring their own views and experiences to the reading as well.
The exercise we performed during Mary's sessions was simple, yet very deep. We teamed up in groups of three with each person being assigned a task - scribe, querent or reader. The task of the querent was to receive a one card reading, the scribe was to record it and the reader was to facilitate. But the difference in this reading was that the querent was to do most of the talking. The reader was functioning in a manner similar to a therapist and refocusing the querent or asking pertinent questions. When the cards were drawn, the querent was asked to describe the image or the emotions they got from the image - not interpret them but describe them.
So, for example, if the Rider-Waite-Smith Five of Pentacles is drawn, the reader might say, "The image shows a couple wearing rags walking in the snow. Behind them is a church window with five pentacles," or "They are cold and frightened, feeling lost and alone," not saying, "This card means . . . (fill in the blank)." I learned that, as the reader, it was very difficult not to interject with my fabulous concepts about what this card meant to the querent. But the lesson learned was that just because I see the card in one way doesn't mean the querent does - or that it is how they need to see it at that time. The next step was for the querent to transform their description into "I statements". So "The couple is cold and afraid" became "I am cold and afraid". Each member of the group took a turn at each task and the same card was used for each querent's reading (my group's card was the Wheel of Fortune). It was incredible to see how differently each of us viewed this card and its symbols. And I also noticed that each of the group had difficulty not "interpreting" when we functioned as readers (quite a kick in the ego, actually).
After we transformed our descriptions into "I statements," we created a fairy tale using the card. We drew a second card as well and, after creating the story, we described where we fell in the sequence - stuck in card one, close to card two, or somewhere in between. And, last but not least, we wrote down any advice we might receive from the figures on the card. Overall, the session was a great look at a different style of reading which is nearer to tarot therapy than a more traditional reading might be.
After Mary's session, we broke for the evening and I had the pleasure of joining Corinne Kenner, Gina Thies, and Cheryl Siegler (I hope I spelled that correctly) for dinner in Manhattan. The ladies wanted to visit Times Square and, since I live nearby, I decided to join them for a bite to eat. Over a wonderful dinner at John's (on 44th St & 8th Ave), we chatted about tarot and trading insights and inspiration we had gotten from the sessions.
Day two began with the room not being ready on time. So Nina Lee (the session's presenter) entertained us in the hallway with stories about her worst readings as a client and as a reader. One was better than the next and (without going into too much detail), let's just say that she definitely wins the prize for the "most bizarre client you have ever done a reading for". Our laughter became so boisterous at one point that a group in another room (I believe they were dentists) had to shut their doors. When we were finally admitted into the room, everyone was eager for the session to begin.
Nina Lee's session focused on Writing Your Reading. She began by going over some common assumptions many readers have about our clients: that clients need help, that WE can help our clients, that clients want to change their lives for the better, that clients have choices, and that our morals match out clients. She also cautioned against: assuming the morals of the cards match your own and assuming the client shares your political, sexual, religious or other beliefs. As Nina Lee pointed out - clients are extremely vulnerable to a reader's suggestions. So being careful is better than being sorry.
She used an example in her own life of how this can be problematic. She had a reading done (it was her worst Tarot reading as a querent) and the reader told her that the cards showed she should have an affair with a married man. Although Nina Lee admitted that she couldn't figure out where the reader got that from, she did wonder for the next few days if that wasn't what she should do. She ultimately decided against the advice, but it serves as a strong example for the need for being very careful in how you phrase things for a client.
Nina Lee explained that readers also come to the table with assumptions of their own, such as: the reader will fix them, the reader is a fake or a psychic, the reader will make their decisions for them, the reader is either omniscient or knows nothing, or that the reading will validate their deepest desires. After talking about these assumptions and how they impact on the reading, Nina Lee addressed the issue of finding your voice as a reader. As she pointed out, beginning writers will often imitate a well-known writer because they haven't developed their own voice. And even when tarot readers (or writers) do develop their own voice, their style will not appeal to everyone. As Nina Lee pointed out - even Shakespeare does not appeal to every reader. You could be James Wells and your tarot reading style would not please everyone.
Nina Lee stated that it is often helpful to take an inventory of your strengths and weaknesses, who you are as a person. There are several methods which can be employed, including astrology (sign on your seventh house cusp), numerology, runes, tarot cards (birth cards, a reading, etc), dialoguing with a friend, or free writing. Once you have determined your style, the next factor is your thesis - what is the goal of your reading. What is the persona which helps you? Does your persona work with your thesis or against it? If you have more than one persona, it's helpful if they work well together. It's also very useful to see how your style, thesis and persona work together. For example, if you view your style as healing and your goal is to help your clients find inner peace and wisdom, but your persona is more like a surgeon, you may have some interesting readings which don't accomplish much for the client.
Nina Lee's next step was to discuss the importance of structuring a reading. Much like a story or an essay, a good tarot reading should have an introduction, a body and a conclusion. Nina Lee feels it is helpful to do something to signal the start of the reading - grounding and centering, lighting a candle, spritzing the room with essential oils, etc. Next is making a statement, such as, "Today we are going to work on banishing negativity from your life," depending upon the client's focus. This is your introduction and should fit your persona and thesis. Your intention will also influence your introduction. Be clear about who you are and what you are trying to do for your client. The conclusion of the reading also needs to incorporate something that signals the end of the reading - restating your thesis or introduction, summarizing the reading, helping the client create a plan of action or giving them a small gift of some sort. Timing yourself so that you can provide this conclusion is also important. Without a conclusion, the reading often feels unfinished and leaves the client a bit off-balance.
Nina Lee's exercise focused on learning who we are as readers. Each table worked on this exercise together and we were assigned group names based on well-known tarot authors (Greer, Pollack, Riley, Kraig, Michelsen, Jette, Sterling, Louis, Opsopas, and Place). Each person in the group was given a specific function - Organizer, Skeptic, Spokesperson, Encourager, Timekeeper and Comic Relief. The first step was for each of us to determine our personal persona, thesis, style, and opening and closing rituals. Some people added additional questions pertaining to the actual reading itself - introduction, body and conclusion. We could determine the answers to these questions in any way we chose - tarot reading, numerology, free writing, etc. Once we were each finished with our private results, we shared them with the group. The spokesperson was responsible for recording our responses in order to present them to everyone. The encourager was responsible for encouraging all members of the group to participate. The skeptic was responsible for challenging some of our assertions. The timekeeper was responsible for moving things along. The comic relief provided just that. Finally, the organizer was the one responsible for establishing a sense of order. In my group (Greer), our assignments were determined by picking from a group of tarot cards to which the organizer had assigned tasks. It was remarkable how appropriate the tasks drawn were for each group member.
What I personally found interesting was that I realized I had never considered what my "Tarot persona" was. As I explained to the group - I am me, I really don't know how to be anyone else. Granted, I may have many facets but my reading persona is simply me working with tarot. Each group then presented their findings to the room. There were some common themes that flowed through the responses (such as healer personas, nurturers, advisors, etc.) and some interesting differences (one person's persona was "Grandma" ).
One of the truly hilarious moments of the weekend occurred when Mark McElroy (the organizer of my group) offered the quip, "We're here, we're Greer, get used to it," in response to Nina Lee's asking if any of us wanted to add something to the spokesperson's presentation. The entire room roared with laughter. It remains one of my favorite memories of the event.
Once all of the groups completed their presentations, Nina Lee spent some time talking about symbols and tarot. As she explained, symbols do not mean just one thing. In literature, a symbol is a specific word, idea, or object that stands for values, ideas, objects, or a way of life. The more a symbol represents, the more powerful it is. Symbolic meanings can exist on several levels - personal, religious (or tied to a specific group), cultural, or "universal". Over time, the meanings of symbols can change, such as the swastika which began as an ancient Germanic sun symbol and is now primarily identified as a symbol of Nazi evil. In closing, Nina Lee pointed out that when we use symbols with clients we can: clearly indicate it is your personal interpretation, ask the client what it means to him or her, use it in a cultural or historical context, use it in the context of tarot or in the specific deck used. It was an interesting session which really made me look at issues I hadn't really focused on before. I came away with a strong sense of the importance of structuring a reading and being clear about who I am as a tarot reader and how that impacts on the types of readings I can provide for a client.
After Nina Lee's session, we broke for lunch. I had the pleasure of sharing it with Mark McElroy, James Wells, Chris Asselin, and Kevin Quigley (a familiar name from the Comparative Tarot list but a new face). We had a fun time chatting about the conference, tarot, the changing face of NYC and anything else that came to mind. We hurried back to the hotel after we finished so that we didn't miss a minute of Rachel Pollack's presentation.
For the final presentation of the day, Rachel explored using Tarot for "Going Beyond Information to Wisdom". To begin her session, Rachel shared one of her favorite daily reading spreads (created by her friend, Zoe). The three cards are: One - Current Situation, Two - Don't Do This and Three - Do This. For the session, she drew the Six of Birds, Five of Trees and Speaker of Trees from the Shining Tribe Tarot. We interpreted this message to mean we should work with dreams and dream journeys, magick, & temples. We shouldn't deal with them in secret and we should share them with others. It was a deep and appropriate reading for the work we were doing that day.
We spent some time discussing ignorance and agreed that ignorance can be a Strength and ignoring knowledge can lead to or be a sickness. She also discussed the difference between what we can know and what we should know. To further explore this concept we did a reading using the Shining Tribe Tarot. We asked the cards:
What are the
strengths of ignorance? We received Justice, which we interpreted as meaning "No preconceived notions, your eyes
What might the
drawback be of this approach? - The Knight of Pentacles was selected, indicating
that the drawback might mean "plodding, very
What is the
strength of knowledge? - The Hanged Man appeared, meaning "change in
perspective, being able to let go and use your intuition after you've gained
knowledge; knowledge is bliss; blessings; sacrifice some lesser meanings in
order to attain higher knowledge"
What is the drawback of approaching knowledge this way? - We received the Hermit, which suggested "sterility, a solitary life, being stuck in the search for wisdom, difficulty for people to understand your thinking, or thinking you know all there is to know; being 'sadder but wiser'"
To say I found this reading profound and insightful would be an understatement. I have always enjoyed Rachel's irreverent and yet deeply spiritual and thought-provoking approach to working with tarot cards. This reading further reinforced my opinions of her approach. After exploring this reading, we then did readings for ourselves to look at our strengths and weaknesses as a reader and how to reconcile them. Without sharing my results, I will say they were somewhat unexpected, and yet, accurate. They also reinforced my intense respect and fascination with tarot. Next Rachel guided us through the "Four levels to understanding anything" (which connect the letters PRDS - the letters found in Paradise or the Hebrew Pardes): the literal state of something or the actual story being told; the intellectual level; the wider context of how things fit in; the mystical meaning, and going beyond the intellectual meaning to the deeper truth.
We then looked at where we get our strength/what is the source of our strength. We drew the Two of Stones (or as Wald pointed out ' "The Lord of Harmonious Change"). And ain't it the truth. Our strength is in our ability to change as the situation calls for it, to incorporate new concepts and new approaches with our already existing ones without dropping everything.
Then we spent some time asking Rachel questions. One of the more interesting was where she personally hopes tarot goes. Rachel responded that she hopes tarot will gain wider recognition as a spiritual tool and acceptance within the community, with the fact that there is no "one true deck". She hopes it doesn't go the "Miss Cleo" route. Tarot's greatest gift to her is that it opened her up to new discoveries and new possibilities.
We then asked the tarot if it can be hurt? We drew the Hermit in response to this question. We then brainstormed to come up with some interpretations. We determined that the message was that tarot's knowledge can be withdrawn or hidden, but its energy can't be harmed. However, there may be places it can't go. Tarot can be seen as the light in the Hermit's lamp. It may be put out, but the potential is there just waiting to be reignited.
Then Rachel shared a reading she developed based on the Easter theme. We discussed the Christ story with all its implications about death and resurrection. So question one was, "What was the meaning of Christ's death?" Question two was, "What is the meaning of his resurrection" We drew the Speaker of Trees (equivalent to the King of Wands) in response to the first question and the Four of Birds (equivalent to the Four of Swords) in response to the second. In order to speak his truth and claim his throne, he had to die.
We ended the session by doing an Easter reading for a volunteer from the audience. Using the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, we asked the following questions:
How do I die? -
Ace of Wands
Who am I when
I'm dead? - Queen of Swords
How do I
resurrect ? - Two of Cups
Who am I when
I'm resurrected? - The Chariot
What will help this happen? - Nine of Swords
The answers touched a chord with the woman and she was visibly moved by it. At one point, she became a bit overwhelmed and tearful. It was obvious that a "vibe" had been touched. And she also found some insight and useful guidance from this reading. It was a powerful and moving homage to the power and wisdom of tarot.
After Rachel's session ended, the conference was done for the night. Unfortunately, I was unable to make it back to the final sessions on Sunday. But I am quite confident they were as marvelous as the rest of the event. As an added surprise, I received a certificate from the Tarot School in the mail the other day. That really made my day. I've been told that Wald and Ruth Ann are planning another Readers Studio next year. I can hardly wait to see what they will offer.
Debbie Lake is a cranky, opinionated Tarotholic who was born and bred in Hell's Kitchen, NYC. She has been married for 15 years (which explains the crankiness) and just loves working with Tarot, reading and driving friends and family crazy with her know-it-all-ness. Visit her at her website.
Article © 2003 Debbie Lake
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes