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Interview: Taking Our Desires Seriously
A conversation with Shea in the Catskills, creator of Tarot as Questions
Shea in the Catskills is a longtime friend of mine, an artist, a tarotist, an activist, an organizer, and a contemplative. Shea is also a collaborator of mine—their illustrations were integral in the creation of my book, Even the Cemeteries Have Space Here.
Now Shea’s book, Tarot as Questions, is soon to emerge into the world. I loved Shea’s original postings from which this book evolved, and I was thrilled to have an opportunity to sit down with Shea for a fascinating conversation about desire, ritual, storytelling and what it means to ask a good question.
A Conversation with Shea in the Catskills
So, your book is called Tarot as Questions. Without using the words “tarot” or “questions,” what is your book about?
It is a book about desire and about taking our desire seriously. I also think it's a book about disrupting the obvious.
In the description of your book, you refer to “questions as technology.” What does that mean, and how does it relate to taking our desires seriously?
The original etymology of the word technology means to weave, or to fabricate or make, and technology is about applying a system of knowledge or applying a craft or skill practically in the world. In this book, I'm thinking about questions as spiritual technology and as relational technology—as a way of bringing what's inside ourselves out so that we can see it, so that we can practically apply or practice what we find there.
Questions are something that we use every day, and we can think about them as a craft or a skill that we apply to our inner life, or to our relational life, in order to move in the direction of our desires or to clarify our desires. The culture is not going to do anything to support us being really in touch with our true desires or to even to think that that's something worth being interested in.
I hear you talking about desires in the context of spirituality and also in the context of being in relationship. For some people, just hearing the word “desire” or being invited to think about what they desire can feel uncomfortable or selfish or less than spiritual. What might you say to someone who is having that feeling?
Well, the first thing I would do is just affirm and normalize that they're feeling that. And I would apply a question that I received from adrienne maree brown, which is who benefits from your feeling that way? Because someone is benefiting from our not only believing, but also having the somatic and emotional experience, that our desires are bad or wrong or selfish. So that's not incidental that we feel that way.
I would also say to proceed tenderly with yourself because desire is extremely powerful. Starhawk calls it the glue of the universe. Desire is the glue of the universe. It’s working with big energy and so we need to be tender and slow and gentle with ourselves around that.
I also heard you talking about questions as skills that we can practice. Now, I know you have a podcast called The Ritualists, where you and Peg Conway discuss different aspects of ritual. How can we distinguish between a practice or a ritual or a habit, especially with so much emphasis these days on habits for self-improvement?
Anything that we do over and over again becomes a habit whether we like it or not. So there's a distinction immediately where with a ritual, we're moving in a direction that we want to move in, as opposed to a habit, which can be something that we want or we don't want.
I think that ritual invites us to participate with beings in the seen and unseen worlds, with the four elements, and with the dead. Ritual leaves space for not knowing everything. It leaves a space that's bigger than making progress. Ritual is an invitation to transformation that we initiate, but we're not totally in control of.
Moving to the other main word in your book’s title, what is a definition or way of thinking about tarot practice that you love?
I like to think of tarot as a resonator. So anything that you are already interested in or want to explore, the framework of the tarot can meet and resonate with that and give you ways to go further into something that you're already interested in.
A tarot deck is like 78 little pieces of artwork, and each artist takes up the 78 arcana—or mysteries, hidden things—and creates images based on their understanding. Pamela Colman Smith famously innovated the tarot by narratively illustrating the minor arcana, which hadn't really been done before. She created scenes that we can look at and enter. We can wonder what's going on in there. We can see how the image creates sensations or responses in our body. And that is a way of using our imagination to take ourselves and our stories seriously.
I've been encouraging my students lately to think about their own body, heart, mind as the guidebook instead of reaching for a guidebook and reading what someone else says. You could ask: How do you respond to the image? What does it evoke for you? What associations and memories does it bring out? What does it make you feel?
One phrase that really stuck out to me in your response was the idea of taking ourselves and our stories seriously. Can you speak more to that aspect?
Every story is about power and politicians know this, advertisers know this, religious leaders know this. And I think artists know this.
We are living inside of stories, living out of stories all the time. There's no way that we can't do that because I think humans are meaning-making machines. That's just what we do. And so to take up that faculty consciously—to notice what the story is and to see what else we might want it to be, how we might want it to be different, and to not take on stories that we've been given by the culture and unconsciously live out a story that we actually have never chosen.
People often wonder, when they're reading the tarot for themselves: What if I'm just telling myself a story that I want to hear? And I say, yes. What is the story that you want to hear? Surfacing that information is so incredibly interesting and important. What is the story that we would like to hear? To know that, and to take that seriously is a form of power that we underestimate.
You teach a workshop called Asking Good Questions. What makes a good question, and what are the ways we might think we’re asking a good question, but it’s actually not one?
The number one thing that makes a good question is that it matters to you. It makes you feel something when you hear it. Often the first question we ask is not that. There's often a question underneath that question, or even a couple levels underneath that is actually the heart of the matter for us. And one way to get under that is to just take that first question and ask yourself, why do I want to know that?
Sometimes the answer to that question is our real question. A question that really matters to us relates very closely with taking our desire seriously.
I feel like yes or no questions sit on a foundation of not knowing what we want. If we're asking a question like, should I move across the country to marry this person and have a blended family? Or should I take this new amazing job here? Should I do this or that? Then we don't fundamentally know what we want, if that's a question that we're asking. And that's just an observation. There’s nothing wrong with yes or no questions. It's not a judgment, but there's a deeper thing that we don't know yet about ourselves that causes us to ask, should I do this or that?
I think the heart of the matter, whether the question is situational and quotidian or deeply existential, is that it matters to us. And when I say that, I mean it makes us feel something. When we hear it, we have a particular kind of sensation, you know, tingles on the side of our head, or we feel something in our chest, or we feel a kind of warmth in our genitals. It actually creates a sort of response in us. Sometimes that can feel a little edgy or scary if it's something that really matters to us. And in that instance, if you're using the tarot to ask a question that feels super intense like that, I really recommend doing a face up card pull and not a random pull.
I know your book includes some writing about face-up card pulls. Tell us more about them.
I first heard about face up card pulls from Mary K. Greer in a podcast that I was listening to. The way I started using them in my own practice was to ask myself, what is the card that I want to see in response to this question? Because generating randomness by shuffling and pulling a card that way can be kind of intense. If we're asking a question that we have a lot of feelings around and where we feel like a lot is at stake, pulling a card randomly and seeing an intense image can be a way of not really taking care of ourselves.
With a face up card pull, by contrast, you go through your deck looking at all of the images face up. I make flash yes/no piles, and then spread out all my yes cards and see which one seems to call out the loudest. We kind of think we're picking in a face up card pull, but it's actually much more of a relationship. So that can be a way of getting information about what we want to be true, whether it is actually true or not. Knowing what we want the answer to be, knowing how we want to feel is just really good information to start with. It's a way of kind of keeping ourselves in our seat when we're feeling vulnerable or in a high stakes situation.
I hear you emphasizing the importance of knowing what we want as an important piece of information in itself.
I think we're so conditioned to look outside for our answers. And when we consult the tarot by shuffling and pulling, I mean, who we think or what we think we're consulting as a whole other sort of question, but a face up card pull is like, we are very explicitly consulting with ourselves, with our own heart, our own body and desires. And that is such an important place to begin. It can prepare the ground for receiving other kinds of answers that may feel more obscure or challenging. But to have that foundation of knowing what we want, what we think, how we want to feel, to know our own minds and bodies and hearts about something is really a perfect place to start.
Last question – getting back to your book, what was the process like of going from your online writing to now having a physical form for your work? What surprised you about that process?
I knew that it was going to be a book even when I began the social media posts. I wasn't sure quite how I would contextualize it. That came later after I'd written about all of the arcana. There are introductory chapters in there about questions as technology, about desire and pleasure, about the way the culture constrains our imagination.
What surprised me most about the process was the mystery and synchronicity of meeting Aurora Brush, my collaborator, who through her Cosmic Dog House Press is publishing the book as an art book. That happened very seemingly randomly.
The process of working with her to actually make the physical object has made me see that this book has a life of its own, the book is its own being that wants to be in the world. And being deliciously surprised at the power of collaboration, of practicing really practicing good relational hygiene with each other and letting that provide the foundation for us to experiment and be really honest with each other, has really served the book in becoming what I think it was meant to be.
When you say that all of that served the book in becoming what you think it was meant to be—well, what is that?
It's a tarot guidebook in the sense that I've written about all 78 arcana, and a person could use that with any tarot deck that they have. It's also a workbook in the sense where I’ve written about each arcana, the facing page is an open space that Aurora has designed to be an invitation for people to participate in actually creating the book by either answering the questions that I provide, or curating other meanings that they like, or by visually creating symbols and meaningful illustrations for themselves. It also contains my illustrations that have been refined and transformed by Aurora's risographic color work in a way that just takes my breath away when I see it. And there's an open spread in the middle of the book where I gave her guitar solo space to do whatever she wanted. So the visual feel of the book is as important as the writing that I've done, and the writing hopefully, that people who have the book will put inside of it so that each person has a unique copy of this book that they help create.