This is an interview with me by Rachel Pollack, as part of our series on the presenters at the Omega Institute Tarot Conference happening July 29-31st. You can read plenty about me right here on my blog, so let’s get on with it.

Rachel: Your work has featured endless ways people can develop their own style and ways of reading.  And yet, you are also steeped in Tarot knowledge and tradition.  How do you integrate these two sides in your teaching?

Mary: I am a life-long learner; I feel history can enhance anyone’s life, and that natural skills can be refined and augmented by study. I don’t fully integrate history and technique in my teaching, although I try to do so in my practice. Carl Jung advised that one should learn everything possible about symbols and then, when working with a dream, to forget it all. It’s a paradox involving an intelligent ‘forgetting’ that allows one to be fully present in the moment with a person’s own material. In actuality, all the learning forms a backdrop, which helps me recognize patterns that may elucidate the whole situation.

When it comes to reading tarot, you don’t need to know tarot history, just basic card interpretations and a few spreads. Some people are intuitive readers and don’t need book meanings to help people via the cards. I really try to honor this potential, so most of my class exercises are designed to develop a person’s natural abilities and insights—to help students discover how much they already know and what their own reading style is. But that’s really only a starting point.

Skill development and history are very useful when faced with crises, blocks and difficult situations. I believe it was George Santayana who said that those who do not know their history are bound to repeat it. We get stuck in old patterns of thinking and behaving, but models and techniques are available that can help us break out of these. Tarot is a kind of story-telling, and history consists of stories from the past. But, a study of history also teaches us how to evaluate these, for all stories are not equally relevant or helpful. In my longer, on-going classes I bring in quite a bit of history. I’m trying to find ways to make history more relevant to a workshop environment, because dry facts can be deadly when students are wanting and needing to experience tarot directly. It’s one of my current challenges.

Rachel: In recent years you have devoted yourself to the history of Tarot and fortune telling.  How does new knowledge of the past affect what we do with Tarot today?

Mary: History is accumulated, collective knowledge. It helps us meet challenges and opportunities that we may not have yet encountered on our own. Here’s a couple of examples.

The history of oracles and cartomancers gives me a sense of belonging to one of humanity’s oldest professions, present in every time and every culture. As an older woman I can see that this is a skill, that while practiced by men and women of all ages, has been a speciality of elder females, for which they have been revered, ignored, sought out, villanized and even killed. Caitlin Matthews expressed it eloquently at the last Readers Studio when she said, “We live on the edge for a reason, so that when people are on edge, they run towards us!” History makes us aware of just what that edge looks like, how others have met the challenges, and conditions under which an ‘edge’ existence becomes honored or dangerous. Knowing this, and seeing how other professions have improved their status, suggests possibilities for elevating this profession for myself and for those who come after.

A second example involves the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, where I have discovered that the Minor Arcana suits illustrate stories chosen by A.E. Waite. For example, Cups tells the story of one of the first Grail myths, and Swords is the foundation myth of the Freemasons. They lend a certain archetypal, psychic power to this deck that has been intuited by many who have copied the artwork, but not previously understood. More importantly, perhaps, is that when we recognize that we are living out elements of a great myth through getting cards in these suits, it gives a greater meaning to the experience and helps us to recognize possible outcomes and make clearer choices.

Rachel: You’ve worked with astrology and Tarot “birth constellations.”  Considering our theme of “Fate and Free Will,” do such structures suggest a more fixed fate than readings where we just shuffle the cards and see what happens?

Mary: There’s an old astrological axiom: “The stars impel, they do not compel.” Impel suggests an urging while compel is about being forced. I sometimes feel that life is like floating down a great river carried by a particular current made up of current events and our own character (or karma). I can go with the flow, enhance it, or fight it. I don’t think that Lifetime Cards tell us who we will become, or that Year Cards tell us what events will happen that year. I find that they have more to do with sensing the existing flow and then discerning the meaning those events can have for us. They reflect qualities that bring a sense of fulfillment—no matter what happens. Were we fated to be born on a certain day? I really don’t know, but I like to think that my Higher Self chose circumstances that would best facilitate my soul’s journey. When I live life as if that were true, then everything seems more vital, exciting and purposeful then when I don’t. Meaningful synchronicities abound, leading to ‘probability enhancement’—one of my favorite definitions of magic. In readings, I like mixing free will with considerations of chance, fate and destiny, which I hope we will do in my conference session.

See interviews with other presenters: