Narratives of Work – a tarot exploration

(This post was available a week early to my patrons. My Patreon helps support this work, and I appreciate my patrons more than I can say! This was also cross-posted with my narrative therapy blog, Wayfinding.)

Tarot is an important part of my life, and has been for quite a few years.

I use tarot as a way to think about what’s happening in my life, with tarot spreads acting as invitations to think about situations in specific and focused ways. I have also used tarot in narrative therapy in a similar way – inviting community members to engage with the cards as a visual way to explore their stories. I also use tarot as part of my slowly developing spiritual practice. I’ve written before about how I use tarot as self-care, in this post that introduced my tarot practice, and in this post about how to use tarot as a self-storying tool.

I participated in parts of the Owl and Bones August tarot challenge on Instagram. There was a prompt for each day, and it was an interesting process to notice was came up, what kept coming up, and how I responded to the cards. (I will admit that my participation was a bit more hit and miss while was away, mostly because I was so sick.)

On August 22nd, the prompt was “Where are things out of balance?”

I drew the Nine of Wands.

Image description: The Nine of Wands from The Wild Unknown tarot deck, against a black background.

This card is about stamina and inner strength – it’s about continuing on the long path.

Carrie Mallon, a tarot blogger who has written posts for each of the cards in the Wild Unknown deck (which I’m using here) writes about the Nine of Wands:

“The Nine of Wands shows that sometimes we need to draw on our inner reserves. We need to protect what is important to us, we need to protect our energy. We need to keep going, even though we may feel a little tired from being so on-guard. This kind of perseverance can be admirable, but can also lead to weariness.”

I thought, of course. Work is out of balance! I’m working too much. I’m always on the edge of burnout. I’m too busy, there’s too much going on, there’s too much pressure and stress. Work. This is about work.

But for some reason, I paused before posting the picture and that little response to it on Instagram. Instead, I sat with it for a few days.

I wondered why it was so easy to come to that interpretation.

I wondered about what the effect of having this story so prominently in my mind might be – how does it impact my days to always be framing myself in terms of “the edge of burnout” and “doing too much”?

I was a little uncomfortable with this line of inquiry, because I am always cautious when I feel myself edging towards “shift the narrative.” So often, this is used as a bludgeon against people who are legitimately struggling with injustice.

“Just shift your narrative!”

“Just focus on the positive!”

How about, just bite me.

However, this idea of shifting my own narrative is a theme that’s been coming up for me in a lot of areas lately. I have noticed that I’ve pushed so hard away from weaponized positivity that I sometimes feel like I’ve lost my connection to any kind of positivity at all. It’s easy, lately, to find myself feeling hopeless, trapped, powerless.

Even though it is unjust to demand that hurting people “focus on the positive,” that doesn’t mean there is never a time to re-frame.

In my narrative therapy training, I’ve been taught to “linger with intent” in the problem story – to invite community members to talk about their problems without shame or judgement, and to look for ways to strengthen their connection to preferred outcomes and preferred selves within those stories.

What this looks like in practice is that I listen to the stories that community members bring into narrative therapy sessions with an ear open to “double-storying” – what’s not being said here, but might be present anyway? In a story of anger, for example, there is sometimes a sense of justice that refuses to be silenced. In a story of hopelessness or exhaustion, there might be a cherished belief that things could be, and should be, different.

This means deepening stories of resistance and response, looking for those moments of choice and asking questions that connect people to their own acts of agency and to the ways in which they’ve responded to the problems in their lives. It also means looking for what people are valuing – what they hold to be precious or cherished, what they want for themselves and the world, what they hope for and dream – and working to strengthen their connections to the histories of those values.

This feels different than telling people to “shift their perspective” or to “think positive.”

It’s hard for me to write about this in clear and confident ways because I’m in the middle of the struggle myself.

What I do in a narrative therapy session is try to help people shift how they are oriented towards their problems and their own stories. I try to shift the narrative!

But outside of narrative therapy sessions and the respectful framing that I’m learning in my narrative therapy training, what I see in so much self-help writing is demands to “change your perspective and change your life,” with a subtext that seems to say that people have invited their own suffering, that they’re experiencing the consequences of their own “low vibrations” or “negative thoughts,” or that they have both the power and the responsibility to single-handedly and through the power of positive thinking change their external context. I hate these demands so much.

But what I’ve noticed in myself is that in rejecting the culture of “manifest your best life” positive thinking, I have also rejected a lot of helpful wisdom (wisdom that shows up in narrative therapy, too, and that I love in that context!) In rejecting the idea that individuals are responsible for changing social contexts that they can’t control, I have found myself also rejecting the hope for any change at all. I have focused so much on the harms of individualizing problems that I sometimes think I have forgotten the hope of collective action. I have focused on resisting narratives of “manifestation” and I think that I have sometimes lost sight of narratives of agency and choice.

I don’t know what to do about this.

But I do know this – when I pulled the Nine of Wands, my mind leapt to a very specific narrative of myself. It is the narrative of overwork. The narrative of “the edge of burnout.” It is a narrative I know very well, and anytime a narrative comes that easily, it’s worth questioning.

Because, even though it is a narrative that comes with my critique of capitalism and my feelings of powerlessness in the face of late stage capitalism, it’s also a thin narrative of myself. (“Thin description allows little space for the complexities and contradictions of life. It allows little space for people to articulate their own particular meanings of their actions and the context within which they occurred.” – from What is Narrative Therapy on the Dulwich Centre’s excellent site.)

I started wondering, what if the thing that’s out of balance isn’t work, but my narrative about work?

(And, since it’s Sunday when I’m writing this, and Sunday in the Tender Year is when I pick a binary and challenge it, what if it isn’t either/or, but rather both?)

I started asking myself what is rendered invisible when I focus only on the part of my working self that is so tired and overwhelmed?

The answers came slowly, especially because I was sick. But they did come eventually.

What gets erased is the joy I take in my work.

What gets erased are the positive effects of my work.

What gets erased is the support I have in my work (including from my patrons!) and the growth that I am inviting into my life by continuing to do this work.

My choices get erased in this narrative, which is a narrative of work being foisted on me – work that I have to do in order to pay the rent, work that I have to do in order to get where I need to be.

But I do feel joy in my work.

There are positive effects that result from my work.

I have so much support for my work, and I do make choices.

After sitting with this idea of work / narratives of work, I laid out another tarot spread for myself.

Image description: A Wild Unknown tarot spread and a muffin on a wooden table. The spread includes the Nine of Wands, the Four of Cups, the Ace of Wands, the Four of Wands, and the Son of Pentacles. The Father of Cups is also visible on top of the deck.

I pulled out the Nine of Wands, and then laid out my favourite spread with that as the focus.

My favourite spread is the elements – a five card spread with a focus card (or a card that represents the situation or the whole), and then cards for air/mental self, water/emotional self, earth/physical or material self, and fire/creative, passionate, or spiritual self.

In the air position, I had the Four of Cups.

The Four of Cups in the Wild Unknown always strikes me as being a card about feelings of scarcity – that rat is trying so hard to keep control of all the cups, to make sure they don’t tip or get stolen. The Four of Cups is often about feeling like there isn’t enough, and in this deck (more than most others) it makes me think of the way scarcity can invite us into desperation and a desire to control our situation more tightly than we need to, more tightly than we actually can. This card says, “I can’t let go of anything, or I will lose everything.”

It landed like a hammer and I almost didn’t even flip the rest of the spread. This card speaks directly to what I had been thinking about over the four days since originally pulling the Nine of Wands.

Maybe I’m out of balance about this because I am so focused on scarcity. I am so terrified of scarcity. I am terrified of financial insecurity – I have experienced acute financial scarcity in the past, and I am chronically on the edge of it (and have been since my divorce), and those thoughts consume me sometimes. Especially when I think about work, and about throwing myself more fully into my narrative work.

I noticed the moon in both the Four of Cups and the Nine of Wands. That dark crescent in the Four is a rich golden colour in the Nine of Wands – two different narratives of the same moon. Am I working towards that bright sliver of light, or am I clutching what little I can in the shadows? It’s the same thing, but it’s a very different story of that same thing.

So that first position is air, how I’m thinking about the situation.

I moved on to the rest of the spread.

Water – how am I feeling about this situation? Where are my emotions here?

The Ace of Wands. This is a card about new beginnings, and about passion. When I think about work, I do think in terms of scarcity – a lack of time, a lack of money, a lack of resources, a lack of faith in myself. And a lot of that is justified, but it isn’t the whole story. Because when I feel about work, particularly about my narrative work, my community organizing work, my writing work – I feel passionate and excited. I feel like I’m building something! I feel like there’s value here, and the potential to do something new and needed. This card resonated for me, too.

Then across the spread to Fire – where is my passion and creativity here?

The Son of Pentacles. I see the same golden crescent moon as in the Nine of Wands, and notice the pentacle (a symbol of earth and grounding and materiality) centered in it – another narrative of this same story that adds stability to the potential and “enoughness” of that rich crescent.

Carrie Mallon writes about this card:

The Son of Pentacles leans into the card, pressing forward slowly but surely. An orange crescent moon frames a pentacle above him. The background is dark, but lightens where he gazes.

The Son of Pentacles is not one to act with great haste or passion. He is purposeful and careful in all that he does. Once he has decided to move in a given direction, that is simply where he goes. He sticks the course and slugs through the mud to reach his goals. He doesn’t always trust easily, but if someone does earn his trust, he stands by them without fail.

On the positive side, this attention to detail can be essential. The Son of Pentacles is thorough and has unparalleled determination to finish what he starts. On the negative side, he can fall prone to tunnel vision.

…[The] Son of Pentacles is looking down at his chosen path. He is so resolute in his endeavors that he may forget to look up and assess his current surroundings. He may have a difficult time with changes and flexibility.

That also resonates with what I’d been thinking about this whole work/narratives of work thing. I recognize my own determination, but I can also see how sometimes I get focused on a particular idea or narrative and it’s hard for me to deviate from that. I also find this interesting because this card is in the fire position – it’s all about passion. But the Son of Pentacles is not a passionate card. He’s determined, focused, attentive but not passionate. And I am passionate. I am passionate in general but I am especially passionate about my work.

Except, not so much lately.

Lately, I’ve been so tired. I’ve been so fixed on how hard it is, how hard I’m working, how hard I have to keep working, and I haven’t been feeling my fire. I’ve been feeling sad and hopeless lately – climate change, economics, politics. I’ve been doing my work, but I’ve been doing it more like the Son of Pentacles than I would like.

And the lovely thing about that is that I can make choices about whether I continue like this! The cards are not fixed, fatalistic. The cards are a conversation. And I can make choices, make changes. I can invite more fire into this part of my life.

Finally, Earth – where is my physical and material self in this?

The Four of Wands. Where the Four of Cups is about scarcity and lack, the Four of Wands is about celebration and reaching milestones.

I’m interpreting this card as an invitation to notice successes as they happen, rather than constantly watching for upcoming failures or challenges.

The fact is, some things have gone really well in the last while! I have First Class Honours in my first course of the Masters program. My birthday offer of $37 narrative therapy sessions has been popular, and I only have 25 of these sessions left. (If you’d like to take advantage of this offer, get in touch! I’d love to work with you.) I have a lot of ideas for posts and projects, and lots of people are interested in participating in these projects. The next zine is almost ready to be printed!

I’m going to try to notice those things when they happen, and to let myself linger in those stories of success and hope.

It’s really difficult looking at our narratives and allowing them to shift (or even acknowledging that a shift might be possible or desirable).

I appreciate the way that tarot invites me into these difficult and rich conversations with myself and with my stories.


Tarot and Self-Care: Elements Spread

One of my favourite spreads is the 5-card elements*. I use it often, but I use it particularly when I need tarot as self-care. Tarot as self-storying. Tarot as an invitation into a gentler moment with myself. When I use it this way, I am not asking about outcomes or directions for movement – I find that those spreads are valuable and helpful, but when I am in a low moment, I need tarot that meets me in that low moment, I need tarot of the sunken now. Then, once I’ve met myself in that moment, I can think about how to move forward.

This post is a bit of a “how-to” and a bit of an introduction to my tarot reading method. It can be important to know how someone approaches tarot before you trust them with your questions!

First, the spread itself.

Image description: A lined sheet of paper. At the top the spread is labeled: 1 in the centre, 2 at the top, 3 to the left, 4 at the bottom, 5 to the right. The position meanings are described as below.

As with almost all of my tarot readings, I approach this one with some flexibility and an openness to conversation between the cards and myself (or the cards and my querent). What that means in practical terms is that I make choices about which cards to draw after shuffling and which to intentionally select, and when I am drawing after shuffling, I make choices about which cards to lay out first. I’ve numbered the positions in this spread in ascending numerical order, but that’s just for ease of communication.

In practice, if I feel particularly untethered from my solid foundations, I might lay Earth first as an anchor, and if I feel lost in heartbreak, I might lay Water first to honour that. I might put the elements down in the order that I feel most connected with them, or in the order that I feel I most need help connecting to them. And the Core card also works well as both a first or a last card. (Narrative tarot, like narrative therapy, is all about welcoming a diversity of responses and experiences.)

The five positions are:

1 – The core. Sometimes this can be the person that the spread is for, sometimes it can be the situation that they’re asking about, sometimes it can be the primary challenge facing them, or the skill, knowledge, or resource they’re relying on to meet the challenge. This card can be drawn after shuffling, or it can be intentionally chosen. Sometimes choosing this card intentionally can be a way to bring agency into a moment of sadness, discouragement, anger, fear, or other distress. Other times, allowing the card to select itself can give the reader an opportunity to respond dynamically to what presents itself. I also consider this card, even more than others in the spread, to be fluid. Sometimes what presents itself here, even when it’s chosen, takes on a different meaning after reading it in relation to the other cards, and it can be a meaningful act of self-authoring to change this card after the reading is complete.

2 – Air / mental / conceptual. What are you thinking about the situation? How is your mental or conceptual self engaged here, and what might help you feel more at ease in your mind? I think about this card in relation to intellect and thinking, but also in relation to overarching concepts – it might be a card about the metaphors that are at work in the situation, or the plan we have made for ourselves in the situation.

3 – Fire / spiritual. What is fueling this situation, or your response to the situation? Where is your passion, your creativity, your spark in this situation? This position doesn’t need to reflect any kind of metaphysical spirituality – it can also simply reflect spark/passion/creativity for secular readers.

4 – Earth / physical / foundational. What is grounding this situation, or your response to the situation? This can be about the physical self, but it can also be about the material context (finances, housing, food security, health), or about the foundations (history, social context, community).

5 – Water / emotional / relational. How are you feeling about the situation, or your response to the situation? What sorts of social connections do you have, or need? How is your heart in this situation?

When I’m reading, I look for where the elements show up in the cards, and whether there are patterns, interesting interactions, alignments, or opportunities for the cards to inform each other. As an example, I’ll show you the reading I did for myself this morning!

* I first learned this spread from Beth at Little Red Tarot, and she expanded it to a 9-card elements + bridges “Full Circle” spread when she did a reading for me. (She has included that spread in her book of 21 original tarot spreads, and I highly recommend it. You can get it here.)

Tiffany’s ‘Elements on a Tough Morning’ Self-Care Spread

Image description: The five card spread described above. In the centre is the Chariot reversed. Air is the Three of Pentacles, Fire is the Father of Wands, Earth is the Mother of Wands, Water is the Daughter of Pentacles. Around the spread are two small crystals and a small sprig of flowers. All cards are from the Wild Unknown Tarot.

I woke up sad. I hadn’t slept well, I am feeling lonely over here in Australia for the narrative therapy intensive, and I’m anxious about many aspects of my life. I felt untethered from a solid sense of myself. It felt like a good opportunity to use myself as a case study for how tarot can be used in a self-care practice. So, I got up and did this spread and spent quite a bit of time with it before I checked my phone, logged in to facebook, or even looked at email. Tarot can, sometimes, be a way to set a small boundary around a block of time and connect with our own experience of ourselves, not mediated through the news, the memes, or the world outside. It can make space for those conversations with ourselves that allow us to reconnect.

I shuffled and drew all of this – no intentional card choices.

I laid them all facedown to start with. (Sometimes I flip as I go, but this morning I wanted the whole thing revealed at once.)

In the centre, at the core, The Chariot reversed. Oof. I felt this one right into my bones – the sense of enthusiasm and passion, the desire to move forward, the energy, all present but blocked. In the Chariot, especially this Chariot, I see so much of the kind of forward movement I want. This Chariot is grounded – that pentacle on the horse’s chest is so prominent! Not rushing forward and about to skid out, she’s got some solid grounding to push off from. And she’s connected to the moon, which always feels so right for me. She’s not rushing forward without any intuitive understanding or openness to new insight – she’s got that crescent on her forehead, allowing her to learn and adapt. Everything I want for myself! But blocked. Reversed. The gut-punch of an answer that feels so accurate.

Then Air, Three of Pentacles. (I drew it reversed but turned it upright when I flipped itWhy? It just felt right to flip it, just like the Chariot felt right reversed.)

Fire, Father of Wands.

Earth, Mother of Wands.

Water, Daughter of Pentacles.

All Wands and Pentacles! Fire and Earth. Creativity and grounding. Spiritual self and material self.

Reading them together, I was able to see a picture of myself within this feeling of sadness, loneliness, restlessness, anxiety about financial and professional sustainability and success. I am a passionate and creative person – Mother and Father of Wands in Fire and Earth, fueling my actions and also grounding me. The Mother here is so protective of her creative projects, and that protectiveness is something I can lean on. I do protect my work.

In her blog series exploring the cards in the Wild Unknown Tarot, Carrie Mallon writes about the Mother of Wands, “Although she can be kind and warm, she is fierce and loyal, and not afraid to stand her ground. She holds her values dear to her heart and isn’t afraid to live in a way that lines up with her moral code. She doesn’t do anything halfway – she’s in it to win it. She pours all of her love, originality and unique energy into everything she does.”

That’s me. That’s the foundation that grounds me. And the Father of Wands with his fierce determination and courage, he fuels me. The creativity, commitment to my values, and determination that I bring into my work is present even in this moment of soft sadness.

Then the Pentacles in my Water and Air. The work that I do in my mental and emotional self-care to keep myself grounded, because otherwise I’m at risk of drowning or floating away. It felt very encouraging and validating to have Pentacles in both these positions – an invitation to recognize how much work I do to keep myself tethered, rooted, connected.

The Three of Pentacles reminds me that I am not alone, and that I have a strong community around me. Even when I can’t feel that connection, I can think about it and know that it’s present and real. In this ‘conceptual’ position, it also reminds me of the work I’ve done to plan my life out, and the fact that I am following through on that plan. I’m launching this tarot business, I’m working on my Master of Narrative Therapy degree, I am acting on the plan. I’m not just floating aimlessly through life hoping to bump into success – I am approaching this intentionally, from a position of forethought and insight, and I am standing on solid ground in my communities.

And then the Daughter of Pentacles. Soft. Vulnerable. Gentle. But also curious, eager to explore, and living under that rainbow – I love how this deck reflects back to me my queerness, lets me see my queer self as valid and present. My heart is a Daughter of Pentacles – ready to step out into the world and explore, still soft and willing to learn.

After the reading, I realized that The Chariot didn’t need to stay reversed. All those feelings of being blocked and unable to access my forward movement didn’t feel as relevant after being reminded of my strong grounding and the fire that keeps me going. Things are moving forward slowly, but they’re not stagnant, and I’m not stalled.

So I flipped that card, and I felt a lot better.

Image description: The same spread as above, but with The Chariot upright. Onward!