Michelle Tea, the High Priestess

The author who chronicled lesbian San Francisco in the 1990s now gives us a full treatment of the Tarot, which she's practiced for nearly 30 years.

More than 25 years ago, author Michelle Tea started reading Tarot professionally in San Francisco, trading spiritual advisement for cigarettes from hippie kids on Haight Street, before relocating to a store called Love.

“If you can call that ‘professional,’ ” she says of her youthful self.

A quarter-century later, Tea is a wife and mother living in Los Angeles, and while she’s maintained a lifelong personal practice with the 78-card divination deck, she decided to plunge back into it in a professional sense. The result is Modern Tarot: Connecting With Your Higher Self through the Wisdom of the Cards, a book that examines the major and minor arcana of the centuries-old prognostication system in depth — with a spell assigned to nearly every card. (While intended to help people live their lives in harmony with the mysteries of the cosmos, many of them resemble crafting projects, and some of them can be silly. For the Five of Pentacles, an inauspicious card she describes as a “downer,” she instructs people to go eat an entire pie.)

“I’ve been enacting little spells personally, as a little solo witch,” she says. “I already have somewhat of an understanding of spells and how to focus intention, and using herbs and flowers and candles and crystals, so I had a sort of foundation to work with, and I just sort of ran with it.

“Understanding the properties of the cards as either hot and energetic and with a crystal that supports heat and energy,” was another inducement, she adds. “Or looking at the astrological implications of different cards, what colors are associated with those. So it was really fun. Part of it was intuitive, but it was fun to do lots of research on herbs, because I haven’t worked with herbs quite as much. I learned a ton.”

Herbs have been used in legitimate folk medicine for millennia, Tea notes.

“They’re so often the root of synthetic medicine that one is willing to put full faith in,” she says. “You know, there’s Valium and there’s valerian: Which came first? It’s funny, when we understand things like herbs and the effects they have on us, then it ceases to be magic and becomes science. I think a lot of magic is science we haven’t understood yet.”

This practical element comes across throughout her new book, ramified by the charming illustrations from frequent Tea collaborator Amanda Verwey. This is all part and parcel of a phenomenon termed the “re-enchantment of the world,” a rigorous questioning of the supremacy of largely male-driven scientific understanding — or, at least, an interrogation of the supposed neutrality of the scientific method and its ability to present the final answer on every question of human existence.

“I do feel very proficient in the Tarot, but it remains a mystery, and I love that about it,” Tea says. “Here, in the material world, we still don’t know what the fuck we are or why we’re here or why the universe even exists.”

An intuitive person who’s by now quite well-traveled, she’s felt the energy radiating from places like Tucson, Ariz., Provincetown, Mass., and Paris. (A New Englander of Polish descent, she was nonetheless “repelled” by Warsaw.) Three decades of exposure to the Tarot have given her a new appreciation for rare, expensive decks like the New Orleans Voodoo Tarot or the early-20th century Waite-Smith Deck, created by London occultist and feminist icon Pamela Colman Smith. And it’s helped Tea gain a new perspective on her own work. People still come up to her at readings and tell her that her raw queercore novel Valencia (2000) saved their lives at traumatic moments along their path to sexual self-discovery, but she cautions them not to follow her occasionally self-destructive trajectory too closely.

“I’m humbled that my work shot out into the world,” she says. “It finds its way to these people who need it. They grab my heart. They’re my people. It’s amazing. It’s also like, I’m 46, I’m married and I have a child and I’m sober. That book is filled with such horrible behavior!

“People are like ‘I read Valencia when I was 15,’ ” Tea adds. “And I’m like, ‘OK, just remember, getting sober is an option.’ ”

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