Tarot cards don't predict the future. But reading them might help you figure yours out.

Tarot tells us stories about our lives and ways we could live them better. It's not really like the stereotypes you see in pop culture.
Image: Tarot cards
At its most basic, tarot tells a story about the cycles of our lives.Adrian Lam / NBC News
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By Jenni Miller

In high school, my best friend and I would spend hours ensconced in her bedroom reading each other’s tarot cards. She had an intuitive talent for the deck of increasingly battered cards, but I did my best to return the favor using the slim booklet that came with it. Her bedroom walls were decorated with quotes and art prints and postcards — the things creative, book-loving teens collected like magpies — and the room glowed like warm, pink amniotic fluid against the night. We shuffled like Vegas card sharks, cutting the cards and spreading them before us so we could choose without knowing what was on them beforehand.

The slap of the well-worn cards on the bedspread felt satisfying as we laid them out one by one in a 10-card layout called the Celtic Cross, in which each card represents different aspects of the person whose cards are being read and their life. Although different readers use different layouts or techniques, every tarot is a narrative of which you are the hero (and the card in the middle), and the surrounding cards represent issues or people affecting you and the story of your life.

Any given tarot deck consists of the 78 cards, sorted into what’s called the minor arcana and the major arcana. The minor arcana looks sort of like a deck of playing cards — it has four suits, as well as kings, queens and jacks — though there are 56 cards in tarot and just 52 in a standard deck, while the major arcana are the 22 cards we normally associate with the tarot in pop culture — Death, the Devil, etc.

Even beyond that, each card is packed with information — some systems rely on numerology (i.e. where the card falls in the deck), astrology, and the Kabbalah to give deeper or slightly different levels of meaning — and each deck is even slightly different. The Rider-Waite deck, though, is the one with which many tarot newbies begin, not only because it’s the most common and easiest to find but because illustrator Pamela Colman Smith’s images are so colorful and clear and packed with symbols to indicate what the card itself means.

There’s no one deck or way to read, though, which is why I leave it to the experts. No matter how many books on tarot and decks of cards I amass like dust bunnies, I don’t fluently speak the language of tarot and its more obscure meanings; it’s the equivalent of trying to read Proust in the original French when you stopped taking the language in third grade. I can pull one or two, three cards at most for a past/present/future spread, but, beyond that, I’m not ever really sure what I’m looking at.

At its most basic, tarot tells stories about the cycles of our lives. Shuffling the deck, picking out cards and laying them out in order reveals what different trials and tribulations we might face during any given journey. However, the cards in the major arcana don't necessarily represent us in a given reading; they might represent someone else in our lives, or symbolize more general issues. Tarot is a complex language, and every reading is different; similarly, every reader and the methodology they use to interpret the way the cards interact is different.

The people I have seen over the years to do my readings have all come from different backgrounds, have different styles of reading cards and use their own unique flourishes to work with clients, such as incorporating astrology and/or mediumship, or from a trauma-informed therapeutic background. (They all have told me more or less the same thing, though: Leave the manic pixie dream boys alone, and finish your damn book.) For the most part, they don’t do “fortune-telling” per se; it’s more about the deeper psychological symbols of the tarot and how we can apply them to everyday life.

A lot of the time, though, tarot simply brings up more open-ended questions instead of offering answers.

In 2017, for instance, I interviewed the famous Chilean-French surrealist director Alejandro Jodorowsky about his movie “Endless Poetry.” In addition to his work as a beloved cult filmmaker, Jodo is also an extraordinary tarot reader and expert; he spent years reconstructing the Tarot de Marseille with Philippe Camoin, whose family had been printing the deck for centuries.

Years before, I’d attended a glamorously bizarre Halloween screening of his cult classic, “The Holy Mountain,” at the Museum of Modern Art, where my friends and I rubbernecked at Yoko Ono, Courtney Love, Martha Stewart and Willem Dafoe. During the audience question period, a nervous member asked Jodorowsky to give her a reading. In turn, he asked her to pick a few numbers between one and 22. She didn’t understand what the point was, but I realized that whatever numbers she chose would correlate to cards in the major arcana, and he would be able to give her a verbal reading on the fly. He did, and it left her stunned.

I was thus determined asked him to pick a card for me after my interview — something I could concentrate on or learn from. He’d reportedly been doing free tarot readings at a French café for years; as recently as 2017, a Facebook user posted that he still appeared on Wednesdays, as did a TripAdvisor reviewer.

He pulled a deck from his breast pocket — apparently, he carries the major arcana from the Marseille deck with him everywhere — and picked out The Lovers card. Everyone usually gets excited when The Lovers shows up in a reading, since we all assume that it means good things for our love life; but it doesn’t necessarily indicate romantic love at all. It can mean partnership, balance or even a choice. Every deck has its own nuances, and every reader has their own interpretations.

In most decks, the Lovers shows two people (usually a man and a woman) in a garden with an angel hovering in the sky above them, maybe in the Garden of Eden. The Marseille shows three people, and a grumpy-looking cherub aiming an arrow at them from above. Jodo pointed to the sun at the top of the card, from which said cherub was emerging.

“The sun,” he said, in his elegant, heavily accented English. “The sun loves everyone.” I’m still not entirely sure what he meant, but I’m positive if I ever figure it out, it will solve everything.