Six tarot cards in a spread

The baking summer heat is relenting just a little today. I slept in, and once I was up, hopped on my bike for a casual ride around Salem. The sunshine, the breeze on my arms and face, the feeling of my legs pumping beneath me–it was a welcome reminder that I’m alive.

When I got home, I sat down at my kitchen table, took a few deep breaths… and did my first focused tarot reading, using the “Keep Calm (While Gravely Fucking Concerned)” spread by Evvie Marin of Interrobang Tarot.

Six tarot cards in a spread

This is probably where people who’ve known me a long time just did a spit take. Sorry about your monitors, y’all.

See, in high school and college, I latched onto my identity as an atheist and skeptic. I roundly rejected anything with even a whiff of the mystical, esoteric, or religious, including, as you’d expect, tarot. My dad–a man with whom I ungraciously associated all manner of nonscientific, woo-y philosophy–occasionally would consult the I Ching, and it lodged irritation in my mind like a raspberry seed between my teeth. Why do you need such mystical bullshit?, I wondered. Your sticks aren’t going to tell you the future!

As the heat of that identity has smoldered down into gently glowing coals, however, I’ve come to develop a more integrative appreciation of the “mystical”, in a way that younger Spencer would have found incomprehensible. As it turns out, I can draw tarot cards and reflect upon them without ever believing they’re endowed with any form of supernatural power. They’re symbols, nothing more and nothing less; distributed by chance, sparking the meaning-making part of my brain. Brains are very good at making meaning, and sometimes a little bit of novel stimulus goes a long way.

And, at the same time, there’s something beyond the strictly empirical explanation. Again, not anything supernatural, but something emotional. Something felt, not thought. After all, even with my meager coding knowledge, I could probably rig up a JavaScript program that randomly produces the names of any number of tarot cards. Click a button, get cards. Done. But that’s not the point, is it? Part of the point is to slow down, to handle a beautiful artifact, to tickle the senses, to enrich one’s life for a moment. I picked this deck of cards, the Prisma Visions deck by James R. Eads, for my first tarot deck because the artwork just draws me in. The cards are sturdy and a delight to hold. The edges are gilded with silver foil, so the deck shimmers and shines from every angle.

white and gray stone on brown wooden table
Photo by Alina Vilchenko on Pexels.com

Or take crystals. They’re minerals. They’re formed by fully comprehensible physical processes. There’s nothing supernatural about a chunk of quartz… but there can be something special about it. After all, we don’t encounter crystals on the regular. They have qualities we don’t tend to experience–translucence, vivid colors, geometric shapes. If humans were cave-dwelling sentient gemstones, if in place of trees, we had crystal spires, then maybe crystals would be mundane. But we aren’t, and they aren’t, so they feel different.

These things don’t have to be supernatural to be magical.

And all of that magic comes from us. A deck of cards is magical in part because the human brain is hilariously bad at comprehending statistics and probability. Tarot is magical because of our ability to reflect and make meaning. A crystal is magical because it’s so unlike the things we encounter regularly. The sparks of “magic” that I see are, ultimately, reflections of our human existence.

creativity magic paper text
Well, that seems apt. Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

Earlier this year, I joined a group dedicated to reviving the Humanist Year project, a resource I discovered right when I was starting grad school. The idea of A Humanist Year, like Sunday Assembly, and like this “secular humanist magic”, is that, in contrast to what I thought in high school and college, there can be a place for these “mystical” values and practices in a secular humanist life. Ritual, for instance, can be used to help us mark chapters of our lives. Gathering together can help us process human existence and build a sense of community. Magic can help us find meaning, beauty, or unexpected joy. These have traditionally been the domain of religion and the supernatural, but they need not be.

Besides, meaning, community, flexibility and groundedness–all of those seem like important values for the moment we live in.

I’m so happy to be able to explore and engage with this in a way that doesn’t require me to compromise what I believe about the universe, but instead sits comfortably alongside the rest of my worldview. That’s pretty damn cool. Magical, even.


As for the reading? Well, in a nutshell, it prompted me to reflect that:

  1. The world is changing and there’s no going back. The only way out is through.
  2. To stay cool and collected, I can lean into my loving heart. Now is the time for me to love stronger and strengthen my ties with others.
  3. How to pass the time? Focus on the mundane parts of everyday life. I can keep the house in order. It’s not sexy, but it’s good discipline.
  4. We are at a tipping point between future outcomes. The forces of fascism and hegemony hold a lot of power and are attempting to bend truth to their ends. I need to trust my gut; I know this is wrong, but they will continue to try to convince us otherwise.
  5. Fighting back for me right now looks like putting more resources into things like my little homegrown social network–building community and branching off in ways that serve me and my people more. It’s work, but it will be worth it.
  6. Finally, I can channel my fear into being a safe haven and a rock, taking advantage of my fortunate position. I can shelter others so they can recover and grow. How lucky I am that even my day job allows me to do this.

That’s pretty cool. And now that I’ve written all this, it’s time to do some housework. The cards told me to. 😜

Further reading

I talk a lot about sex and sex-positivity, especially in person. (There’s a big post about what that all means and why I find it so important coming up at some point–it’s long overdue.) There’s a lot of cultural weight stacked against sex that I, as a humanist and a feminist, simply can’t accept, and so I’ve worked over the past few years to free myself of that stigmatical burden. But as a student at a small liberal arts college in eastern Washington, and one who calls Portland, Oregon “home” to boot, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the sex-positive spheres I inhabit are not what many people across the country recognize.

This post on reddit caught my eye today and gave me a really unpleasant reminder of what a sex-negative culture can do:

I’m a 17 year old female, and I think I have an over active sex drive.?

Or maybe a hormone imbalance. I’m not very sure. First of all i’d like to say I am not trolling, although it may sound like it. I’m a virgin. But I think about sex, frequently. I masturbate like about 4 times per week and think about sex everytime I go to sleep. I think about it way to much to where I’m at the point of seeing someone sexy on tv and wanting to have sex with them. I don’t know if this is normal, and I wasnt sure where to post this. Please help:(

This is what happens when a culture tells people, especially women, that enjoying sex is abnormal, that it’s wrong, that it’s something to be ashamed of. A girl exploring her sexuality in a perfectly natural, healthy way, harming nobody in the process, is led to believe that she’s physiologically abnormal for seeking pleasure. She feels guilt and grief when she has done nothing wrong. And she feels like even when she’s doing something that only affects her, she needs to be “normal”, as if there’s something inherently wrong with an abundance of sexual thoughts and behaviors.

We need to fight this. We need to tell people of all genders, sexes, and orientations that they can and should love their bodies and all they can do, if they so choose. We need to broadcast a better idea of what is “wrong” based on consent and harm, rather than puritanical anti-pleasure maxims. We need to create a culture that celebrates consensual sex and sexuality (including the choice not to be sexual)–rather than one that makes 17-year-old girls afraid that there’s something wrong with them for being sexual.

My high school’s class of 2012 just graduated today. Damn, I feel old.

My friend Michael Jarmer, who teaches English at my high school, wrote this impressive imaginary commencement address to the seniors. It’s full of great advice derived from his experiences teaching and learning literature with his students, and reflects a healthy humanist appreciation for each other and for our lives that I always find so refreshing to read:

And once we’re in college or unemployed we wait for a job, a family, a kid, and then we wait for the kid to go through grade school, middle school, high school, college, job, marriage, grandkids, and…  Good grief. Stop waiting for life to begin. Your life has already begun. You’re in it. Live it. Be here now. Tomorrow will come, I guarantee it.

It’ll only take a few minutes of your time, and the inspiration you’ll get from it is totally worth it. Go read it.

Got this from my friend Billy, who got it from Dumb Little Man, where it was written by Leo Babauta. Please, I implore of you, take a moment to read and consider this. I think it’s really, really important.


“The proper function of man is to live – not to exist.”— Jack London

Too often we go through life on autopilot, going through the motions and having each day pass like the one before it.That’s fine, and comfortable, until you have gone through another year without having done anything, without having really lived life.That’s fine, until you have reached old age and look back on life with regrets.

That’s fine, until you see your kids go off to college and realize that you missed their childhoods.

It’s not fine. If you want to truly live life, to really experience it, to enjoy it to the fullest, instead of barely scraping by and only living a life of existence, then you need to find ways to break free from the mold and drink from life.

What follows is just a list of ideas, obvious ones mostly that you could have thought of yourself, but that I hope are useful reminders. We all need reminders sometimes. If you find this useful, print it out, and start using it. Today.

1. Love. Perhaps the most important. Fall in love, if you aren’t already. If you have, fall in love with your partner all over again. Abandon caution and let your heart be broken. Or love family members, friends, anyone — it doesn’t have to be romantic love. Love all of humanity, one person at a time.

2. Get outside. Don’t let yourself be shut indoors. Go out when it’s raining. Walk on the beach. Hike through the woods. Swim in a freezing lake. Bask in the sun. Play sports, or walk barefoot through grass. Pay close attention to nature.

3. Savor food. Don’t just eat your food, but really enjoy it. Feel the texture, the bursts of flavors. Savor every bite. If you limit your intake of sweets, it will make the small treats you give yourself (berries or dark chocolate are my favorites) even more enjoyable. And when you do have them, really, really savor them. Slowly.

4. Create a morning ritual. Wake early and greet the day. Watch the sun rise. Out loud, tell yourself that you will not waste this day, which is a gift. You will be compassionate to your fellow human beings, and live every moment to its fullest. Stretch or meditate or exercise as part of your ritual. Enjoy some coffee.

5. Take chances. We often live our lives too cautiously, worried about what might go wrong. Be bold, risk it all. Quit your job and go to business for yourself (plan it out first!), or go up to that girl you’ve liked for a long time and ask her out. What do you have to lose?

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