God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of. - Bruce Springsteen, Brilliant Disguise
Her name was Hope and that was just what I needed her to be.
As I drew back the faded chintz curtain to the back room of Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo, I expected to see a crystal ball, a black cat, and Hope sitting on a throne, donning a dark purple gothic robe covered with stars and moons. Instead, she was wearing a dowdy, flower print dress – the kind my grandma used to call a housedress. She looked up and saw me, slipping her Styrofoam plate of Chinese food under the plasticized cardboard table and putting away her Harlequin romance. With her beer belly and unkempt gray hair, she would have looked more at home sitting at a battered kitchen table in a trailer, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes with the soaps blaring and a grandchild howling in a dirty playpen in the corner. If there were spirits from the netherworld here it seemed more likely they were of the trailer park trash variety than the supremely divine. It seemed more likely they might kick my city-girl butt just for fun than offer an aura of spiritual protection.
“Come in, my dear,” she said, motioning me to join her.
Her eyes were soft and her voice was soothing, and my wounded soul needed soft and soothing, regardless of the package it was wrapped in. So, instead of turning and running, I sat in the scratchy overstuffed chair next to her.
It was the week after Mardi Gras – the week the hotel rates settled back to normal and my group could afford to hold this year’s annual conference in New Orleans. I had waited until dusk and casually slinked by the derelict building, then glanced around to make sure none of my colleagues saw me as I entered this part-tourist trap, part-spiritual Mecca. I tried to look touristy, slinging my new Nikon around my neck, even though the battery was dead, just in case anyone was watching. They weren’t. I paid $20 for a reading complete with a receipt that would make any IRS agent happy, something that made me feel less than otherworldly.
Hope handed me a tattered Rider-Waite tarot deck. I noticed a large grease spot on the top card and wondered who left that mark and whether or not they left feeling reassured about their future.
“They’re well-worn from three Mardi-Gras seasons” she said, “It might be time for a new deck.”
I stared at her blankly.
“Go ahead and shuffle them,” she urged.
“How?” I asked, stunned. What the hell was wrong with me?
She made a motion like shuffling a deck of cards.
“Oh, like regular cards.” DUH!
She nodded. Her calmness comforted me but also made me all too aware of the double espresso I downed at the Starbucks kiosk in the hotel lobby before embarking on my mystical journey. I should have had a shot of whiskey instead.
I fumbled with the cards in a not-so-graceful imitation of shuffling. Three cards tumbled to the floor.
“Sorry,” I said as I reached and picked them up off the gritty linoleum, wondering if my clumsiness left even more grunge on the cards.
“Ok,” I said and I handed her the disarray of cards.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Um . . . no . . . “ At that very moment I was not sure of anything. But I still had enough wits about me to know that if she asked, then I probably was not sure.
She smiled. “Just think about why you are here and move the cards around until it feels right.”
“How will I know?” I thought, but did not say. “I’m a bit nervous,” I said apologetically, stating the obvious.
If she were a different kind of person I could imagine her saying “No kidding?” But instead she just smiled gently.
I drew a deep breath and started over. I managed to keep the cards on the table this time.
Finally I handed her the deck. “I’m ready.” But I wasn’t sure that I was. I already felt like a failure at this. I couldn’t even shuffle the cards right.
She laid out the cards, one by one, in a configuration I recognized as the Celtic Cross, having done a quick Wikipedia check before heading out to the House of Voodoo. The only sound, other than the rowdy customers in the main store, was the gentle thwack as she put each card into its place. The silence was uncomfortable, so I started babbling random bits of TMI as I fought the Skeptic in my head who argued that she did not care, that I was just another in the throng of transients wanting a parlor trick. I needed her to really know me, to be on my side. I needed to be special to her, special enough for her to ensure my good fortune.
She finished laying out the spread, tilted her head slightly and nodded. I shut up. I was embarrassed by my own desperation. I could smell my own fear. It nauseated me.
“Well,” she whispered, “let’s begin. Keep focused on your problem and question as we proceed.” As if I focused on anything else lately.
She turned over the cards one by one and studied their placement. I felt a trickle of sweat slide down my back. Suddenly I was overheated. Oh God, please do not let me pass out in Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo – the floor’s too dirty and how would I ever explain being here? I was distracted by the thought of keeping myself conscious and missed a bit of what she said, until she asked if I was struggling with two opposing figures in my life. Like a cartoon character my eyes widened and I nodded my head furiously, forgetting that I was already fighting dizziness. I couldn’t believe I was being so cliché. How could she possibly find me special when I was acting like such an idiot? She seemed not to notice, or at least, my Skeptic said, she was not in the habit of letting idiot customers know that she thought they were idiots.
“The Knight of Cups and the King of Cups both appear here, in the present and recent past. Usually that means a love rivalry, but I am not getting that sense here. Court cards signify that someone else is involving themselves in your situation. The King of Cups is someone who manipulates you through emotions. Knights often point to movement, something afoot. Tell me about the two people you are in conflict with.” Her tone while still placid, had taken on a timbre of gentle authority.
I slumped and sighed. I couldn’t find the words to explain. “Ummm . . . I’m scared.” I sounded like a 3rdgrader whining to the teacher. At the same time, I felt the relief of telling someone who wouldn’t really judge or at least whose judgment would not have any real consequence for my life. I suddenly felt like it was ok to sound like a panicked 3rd grader here.
“What is it that you are so scared about?”
“Everything,” I whispered, ashamed.
She touched another card. The Ten of Wands. It didn’t look good. It had a guy struggling under the weight of a bunch of very big sticks. I knew that feeling.
“This card indicates major change - one that will require a whole new way of being. It won’t come easy. See how he is struggling under the burden? He’s in over his head. It’s a long path he’s on.”
My heart sunk. The C word – change. The one word I feared. The word I knew - deep down where you really know things – was coming at me full speed.
I got that tickly feeling at the top of my nose that I get when I am going to cry.
“Please, no,“ I whispered as a tear fell.
She handed me a napkin with an embossed red dragon on it. I fought the impulse to go curl up on her lap and bawl my eyes out.
“Change can be good,“ she said gently.
She would say that, I thought defensively.
“See in the distance – the houses? That is the goal, the new life. But his head is so bowed under the strain that he does not see it. He does not know it’s right there. He only knows the burden right now.”
“But, it does not have to be me, right? I mean . . . the other person could . . .” I fought the urge to say “die”. “. . . just leave . . . and that would be a big change and it would all be ok after that?”
She was not buying my interpretation. I was practically telling her how to reassure me, but she wasn’t biting. She’d get more customers if she told them what they wanted to hear, I thought, sarcastically.
“These are your cards. They are about you. This card appears in the position known as the Ground, which means it’s at the root of the question. You’re moving on. Someone is causing you to change course but getting there is hard and it feels overwhelming.”
I nodded, defeated. I wanted to leave but I was riveted. I hadn’t expected this to be so real.
She paused and held the next card out to me. I didn’t want to touch it. It felt like giving in, like doing so would make it real. She nodded slightly. I took the card and another tear slid down my cheek. Get a grip, my Skeptic said disgustedly.
“It’s a sad card,” she said gently. “One of great regret and mourning. The Five of Cups in your Self position, which represents you and how your environment is affecting you. See the spilled cups? They represent loss. See how he is enveloped by the dark cape and is staring down at the spilled cups in front of him?” Suddenly she changed her pronoun. “You feel overwhelmed and defeated by the loss.”
She paused and waited for it to sink in. Why couldn’t she just make up a nice reading for me?
“It has hope as well, but it’s hidden. See the remaining upright cups? Not all is lost. See how the figure is turned away from them? In the middle of your grief for things lost, you cannot see what good you still have. But it’s still there . . . waiting. The river is a symbol of all things moving on. The bridge and town mean that there will be other times and places for life to go on, far away from the current misery.”
“Ok, so, am I there yet? I mean, at the town? I have lost some, but I can keep what I have now? Nothing more will be taken away?” The survivor in me was fighting this like a junkyard dog, even though every word resonated deep within me.
“I’m not sure you are there. . . yet.” Translation – she was pretty sure I was not there yet but thought I was freaked out enough already. She was one of those people who cared enough about others, even strangers, to not lie, but to tell the bad news in the gentlest possible way. Her kindness was soothing, but all at once made me even sadder. It made me know that I was in enough trouble that I needed handling with kid gloves. It made me feel pitiful and trapped.
“But I could be . . . right? She shrugged her shoulders and squinted slightly, which was meant as “no, not so much,” but which I wanted to interpret as “maybe.” I looked down and saw that the napkin was now in shredded pieces in my lap.
She let it go. I guess she knew I needed her to. She was giving it to me straight, but she was not force-feeding it. I guess she knew I would have to come to acceptance in my own time.
“You have a lot of cups in your spread. This means that what is going on with you is very emotional, very spiritual. In getting through this your heart will break a little. But hearts were meant to be broken from time to time.”
“But you have several Wands too. And they represent creativity. This card,” she held up one with a picture of a huge fist holding a big twig, “is the Ace of Wands. It is about new beginnings, new ways of thinking.”
“But what if I don’t want a new beginning? I just want to let things be how they were.”
“Well,” she spoke gingerly as if explaining the unexplainable to a two year old, “it’s not really always up to us, is it?” She paused to let that sink in. “Your creative side is going to blossom. It’s what will get you through all this.”
She was throwing me a life raft. I’d always felt my creative side was simmering underneath, but it was too often pushed aside because I had no time for it. The most creative thing I had done lately was change the font on my email signature block.
“It’s in a Future position. It means a big break is ahead, but it will be a blessing, even if you don’t see that right away.”
All at once, I felt the tension leak out of my body. I couldn’t argue with her anymore. There was no more denying it. This was me. This was everything I was holding inside. This unassuming woman and her tattered cards knew my truth better than I did.
“But the best news here is your final card.” She handed me a beautiful picture of a woman wrapped in a scarf in the middle of a wreath. The card just emanated a sense of good.
“It’s The World card of the Major Arcana, which means it is very powerful. It’s the only one in your spread, so it dominates all. And it is in the most powerful position of the spread – the Final Outcome. This is a card that depicts victory after loss. You will experience a gamut of emotions – highs and lows. This card is a vote of confidence from the universe. You must not stay discouraged. There will be temporary blocks, but you must trust that you will have more than you dreamed of. Do not fall into hopelessness.” I smiled at her choice of words, wondering if her pun was intended.
We looked at each other for a few moments, not speaking. I didn’t want to leave, but the reading was finished. It seemed there was no more she could tell me, I just had to go live it now. I got up slowly and headed out through the curtain.
I turned back, to face her. “Hope,” I said, my voice cracking, “am I really gonna be ok?” My upper lip quivered and I sucked in my breath.
“You will be ok, Donna. Maybe not the ok you think is ok right now. But ok nonetheless. The World is your Final Outcome remember.”
“Ok,” I said, not really feeling ok at all. “Ok. The World. Thank you.” I slipped a $5 into the crinkled brown paper lunch bag she was using as a tip jar. “Um . . . take care . . .”
I walked out of the House of Voodoo as if in a tunnel. My chest was heaving. I just kept walking down Bourbon Street, occasionally wiping the flowing tears. No one seemed to notice. It was New Orleans after all.