Nicole Lock spreads a light purple cloth patterned with delicate stars and a dappled black moon on the table between us. She removes two decks of Tarot cards from a small pouch and shuffles them idly as she speaks. Silver rings flash on her fingers, eye-shaped earrings dangle from her earlobes, and the swirling sea tattoos her forearm.
She pulls a card. The Devil. This card, she says, can represent your addictions – anything you feel tied to or trapped by – but it can also signify freedom – letting loose, losing control, and maybe even dancing a little.
“We’re always working with dichotomies,” Nicole said.
“Being a witch is about taking this linear idea of dichotomies and making it into a circle,” she traces a spiral with her hands, giving the sense of a multitude of connected possibilities.
Nicole, who runs www.cascadianwitchproject.com, proudly calls herself a witch. But throw out that Hollywood stereotype of a pointy black hat and broomstick. For Nicole, witches have more in common with psychologists, spiritual healers, and political activists than the Wicked Witch of the West.
“[Being] witchy means believing in the power of yourself and your ability to influence the universe,” she explains. “It’s about believing that you have power that’s not just with your hands.”
Tarot helped Nicole rediscover her power. The cards were likely created as a game in the 14th Century, and they’ve been used for divination for practically as long. But modern Tarot practitioners like Nicole are more likely to use Tarot as a tool for self-reflection and meditation than to predict the future.
According to the New York Times, Tarot-deck sales rose 30 percent in 2017, and another 30 percent rise in 2016 marked the cards’ highest sales in 50 years. The recent Tarot renaissance can be traced to practitioners like Portland-based Kim Krans, whose The Wild Unknown deck illustrates the traditional characters with modern images of plants and animals instead of people. The deck’s 2015 debut sold out, and shortly after, HarperCollins acquired future publication rights.
Nicole started reading Tarot at 14, but she stopped when her disapproving mother discovered her cards and Wiccan books. Then, when she moved from Washington to the Willamette Valley for graduate school in 2013, she hit a personal low, feeling deeply insecure. To regain stability, she sought spirituality in nature and used Tarot to understand her personal life.
“Tarot is an awesome self-healing tool,” the 27-year-old says. Now, she now pulls cards every day. For her, they are an instrument for guidance and a conversation with a higher power.
“They help you really look at what you’re doing,” she says. But rather than a prognostication or a firm answer, Nicole believes the cards act like any tool for introspection: They help you gain a clearer understanding of the story of your life.
“The patterns are similar, whether you call it tarot or psychology,” she continues, “there’s a difference between what happened and the story you tell yourself.”
Still, in a country like the U.S., which remains predominantly Christian – or, as Nicole says, “not very woo-woo” – there can be strong stigmas about Tarot, including in her own family. Growing up, Nicole felt shame about her spiritual leanings until graduate school taught her how to dissect the ideologies she was raised with as “natural.” Now, she considers herself pagan; nature – a piece of moss, water dripping from a cave wall – is a source of spirituality for her.
“Nature hasn’t ever just been nature to me,” she explains. “Hiking is what got me through graduate school.”
Her family still may not understand, but when talking with them, Nicole tries “to come from the heart, not from blame.”
“My aunt thinks I’m talking to the devil,” she admits. “And I say, ‘Well, then the devil’s pretty sweet and wants me to do great things with my life.’”
For Nicole, Tarot and spirituality are also highly political. She’s an active part of a community focused on the rise of the divine feminine in culture.
“The feminine doesn’t have a good space in the world,” she says, adding that liberal feminism talks about being equal in a man’s world. “I don’t want to be equal in a man’s world,” she continues, “I want the world to be equal. And if you think it can’t be possible – I’d put that to the devil.”
The Devil is one of the 22 Major Arcana found in every 78-card Tarot deck. Major Arcana are narrative archetypes – the Fool, the Empress, the Lovers, the Hanged Man, Death, and others. The remaining 56 cards are Minor Arcana. Similar to common playing cards, the Minor Arcana are numbered one through 10 with four court cards (comparable to face cards), though they have different suites: wands, cups, swords, and pentacles rather than clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds. The four suites correspond to the four elements: wands are fire, cups are water, swords are air, and pentacles are earth.
At our meeting, Nicole demonstrates a three-card reading with a twist: she would pull three cards, the first for what I should do, the second for what I shouldn’t do, and a third for what to focus on next. For the twist, she would flip the entire deck over to reveal an underlying theme.
She asked me what question I would like to consider. I paused awkwardly, realizing I hadn’t been prepared to get personal. Still, the only thing I can bring to mind is my most pressing dilemma: I was moving back home to Iowa soon and struggling to figure out my next career steps. I wanted to write, but I was uncertain if this was the right path.
Nicole asks me to sit with this question as we take several deep, grounding breaths together, eyes closed. After about three breaths, we open our eyes and she shuffles the cards. She lays three cards out on the purple cloth and then flips the entire deck over, settling it above the others.
My first card is the nine of pentacles, a diamond of feathers surrounding nine encircled stars. Pentacles, being of the earth, represent doing. The eight of pentacles is about honing your skills, Nicole says, so the nine is about building a life for yourself. The card depicts a nest of comfort from which you can stand strong and independent.
She asks me to reflect a bit, and I note that I just completed a creative writing program, so being in the step after honing my skills makes some sense. It also feels scary – do I really have a strong nest?
“It’s big work,” she agrees. “It’s personal healing.”
My next card is the Son of Swords; a face card. The swords represent air. They can represent people, Nicole says, or sorrow, and they are often about the mind and intellect. “I went through a lot of swords cards in grad school,” she says, shaking her head.
This card depicts an owl holding a sword angled downward. Nicole says, “He’s just like a racing wind.” For me, she thinks the card means that I shouldn’t get too in my head. “Don’t jump on things like fears and anxieties,” she explained. “Don’t expect results to be instant. And check in with yourself – watch the way you’re talking to yourself in your mind.”
I laugh at this, and confirm that I have a tendency to overanalyze. “It’s funny that this one came right after the one about feeling secure,” I say.
“The cards are sassy,” Nicole says, smiling. “Or maybe that’s just me, I’m sassy, so that’s how I read them.”
My third card is the three of cups, a trio of black birds watching a colorful sky. Nicole says it represents friendship and community. “As you move forward, make sure you’re connected,” she says. “Don’t just hide.”
The final card, my overarching theme, is an elegant tiger under a crescent moon: The High Priestess. “She’s all about your subconscious,” Nicole says. “She’s about intuition, listening to your dreams, and the cycles of earth and mystic feminine.”
After all of this, Nicole asks me what I think.
I’m surprised by how uncomfortable the reading made me feel, though I also found it reassuring to hear my problems reflected outside of my mind.
Nicole says this kind of discomfort is what Tarot is really about. The tarot acts as a mirror to our lives, making us consider things we might normally push aside.
“It’s intense work,” she says. “You have to get very venerable.”
After the reading, Nicole packs up her things. She asks me why I decided to write this article.
“I have been interested in Tarot for a while,” I say.
“Are you going to get some cards now?” she asks.
“Maybe. How do you choose your cards?” I ask, flipping back into reporter mode. “Is there some kind of a connection you have with them?”
“Honestly, don’t get too into your head about it,” she says, and we both walk away smiling.
Nicole offers Tarot in-person and remote Tarot readings at various price points, depending on need. For more information, visit www.cascadianwitch.com.