Astrology App and Tarot Cards: My Pandemic Search for Certainty

The weekend before the world shut down, I was told to prepare for judgment. It was Friday, March 13. By Monday, New York City schools would close, bars would shutter, theaters would go dark. But on Friday there was relative normalcy upstairs at Raoul’s, a 45-year-old SoHo bistro known as much for its legendary parties as for its steak au poivre.

As New York City hit 150 reported COVID-19 cases, my fiancée and I decided—with baffling arbitrariness in hindsight—to keep our anniversary dinner reservation but to forgo the subway. We had our Greek wine-themed dinner, and before walking back over the Brooklyn Bridge we stopped for a nightcap at Raoul’s. Drinks in hand, we spiraled our way up the staircase and slid into a booth, dimly lit by the glow of the fish tank. A few minutes later a tarot reader with long braids and a kind round face set up next to us and unpacked her decks, a celestial-themed tablecloth, and, in a nod to the moment, a bottle of hand sanitizer. In the spirit of the Last Night on Earth, my fiancée and I bought each other readings—my very first.

The reader laid before me a series of nine cards, all but two of which were major arcana, the most significant cards in a tarot deck, I would come to learn. There was the Emperor, a stern, bearded elder robed in red with strong Evil Santa vibes. Death(!), a skeleton on a horse greeting children and kings alike. Judgment, a golden-haired Gabriel rousing the dead with his horn. Even as a tarot virgin I could tell that these cards were intense. The reader sensed my alarm. The Emperor, she told me, was about structure and a sense of control. Death, she reassured me, didn’t literally mean dying, and Judgment needn’t be ominous. It’s a wake-up call, she said, perhaps signaling a new beginning or heightened awareness. It could be a good thing—look at those well-preserved corpses rising joyously from their coffins. Ha ha, nothing to worry about!

Despite being both a queer 30-something Brooklynite and the granddaughter of a Chinese face reader who conversed with ghosts, I have always been skeptical of various forms of mysticism and divination. I’m bullish on science. I don’t know my moon sign. The only crystals in my home are pyramids of Maldon sea salt. How many times have I peered intently into my drink while friends discussed the Scorpio-ness of their exes? That a series of cards laid out in a specific pattern can divine the future runs counter to my sense of personal agency. My destiny is controlled not by the harmony of the spheres but by the choices I make, and even if I could know the future, who likes spoilers? “That’s so Aries,” some of you are clucking right now, but I prefer to see my “energy” on any particular day as a reflection of my hormones and whether or not I’ve consumed enough water. If my future is already written in the stars, why bother getting out of bed?

But my end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it tarot reading kept coming back to me through months heavy with death, judgment, and a loss of control. Near constant ambulance sirens gave way to a summer of protest and reckoning, and as we canceled our wedding and watched my home state of California burn and obsessed over the outcome of the upcoming presidential election, I began to feel crippled by uncertainty and stasis. By nature I don’t consider myself a control freak. But in a year without linear progress, when the hubris of planning something as simple as a meeting with a friend was punished by rain or a rising line on a graph of infection rates, I felt trapped in a state of suspension. My life was on hold for the foreseeable future, and my usual coping tools—community, access to nature, and a relentless focus on finding solutions—were out of reach. What was going to happen? I needed guidance.

Entire civilizations have sought clarity and comfort in organized religion during times of strife, but a traumatic semester at Catholic school ruled out that option for me. What about the spiritual practices that seemed to work for so many of my peers? My friends are no dummies, and if they tote crystals around in their pockets, chat with their dead ancestors, and commune with the full moon, should I too? Could mysticism be the antidote to a year that felt like swinging at a piñata, blindfolded and dizzy, and the piñata may or may not be a hologram?

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