American Tarot Association Albany Tarot Conference - July 6-8, 2001 by Diane Wilkes

There is something to be said for both the large conferences and the more intimate regional conferences held by the American Tarot Association (ATA).  The conferences that number participants in the hundreds generally have a large number of presenters and the activity is non-stop.   However, no one could call them intimate.

One thing I admire about the American Tarot Association is that they have held the larger conferences in the past and could continue to do so, but instead choose to make conferences available to more people by holding them all over the country.   The number of attendees at the Albany, New York, conference  hovered at the 45 mark, but the energy level was high enough for double that number.

The conference began Friday with a class for beginners taught by the indefatigable John Gilbert.  Entitled "How to Read Tarot Cards in One Day," it's a VERY reasonably-priced one day seminar that has novices doing readings that day.  I was unable to attend the whole workshop, but at the end of the day, I did go in and exchange readings with one of the attendees, and was struck by the industrious air of new readers hard at the work and play of tarot reading.

John assigns and defines the elements in their upright and "inverted" or reversed form, and then correlates the five suits to the five elements.  He then lays out the cards in the following tableau:


1            2            3            4            5            6            7

8            9           10          11          12          13          14

15         16          17          18          19          20          21

He assigns Pages to 11, Knights to 12, Queens to 13, and Kings to 14, and places the pip cards of the same number beneath the Major Arcana card.  John then provides a keyword, phrase, or concept for each of the Majors, and uses the same keyword, phrase, or concept for the Minor card of the same rank.  He gives out a "cheat sheet" for that purpose and then he has the class practice...and practice...and practice some more.  It seems like an amazingly effective process that mixes information with the experiential, with the emphasis on the experiential. 

Dinner was the aperitif for the evening's main course: a class with Ruth Ann Brauser and Wald Amberstone of the New York Tarot School.  They offered a version of their Monday Night Tarot Class, which always focuses on one card.  This night's subject was The Hanged Man (conveniently, that was also going to be the subject for that Monday at the their school--killing two cards with one stone, as it were).  We actively meditated on the card, guided by consummate professionals Brauser and Amberstone, and then discussed possible interpretations for the card.  After the break, though, the real excitement began: Ruth Ann and Wald posed questions that the class was to answer from the point of view of the Hanged Man, as if we were collectively the Hanged Man doing a reading--and every answer was to be formed from the concept that the card always pulled to answer the question guessed it...The Hanged Man.

This led to fascinating discussions.  Wald emphasized that, while each of us might come up with different answers, all of them would be valid from the various dimensions of the card.  Interestingly, all weekend the Hanged Man card kept coming up, not only for Ruth Ann, but in most of the group readings done in the various workshops.  

Some sample questions were:

1) Wands (Career) - I'm a senior in college, and I'm thinking about changing my major.  It would mean changing the entire direction of my life.  Is this a propitious thing for me to do?

2) Cups (Relationship) - I had a bitter argument with my wife, the last of several, and she left me. I don't think she's gone for good, and I want her to come back. Should I take the initiative and try to get her back, or should I give her time to cool off and let her make the first move?

3) Swords (Authority) - My son is 14, very angry and rebellious. He breaks every rule I make for his safety and happiness. I haven't been really strict up to now, but maybe I should be. If I crack down, will it do him good or make things worse?

4) Pentacles (Health) - My 22-year old daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer last week.  She's scared of both death and disfigurement, but for her, disfigurement is worse. She refuses to undergo standard medical treatment and wants to go to Brazil for psychic surgery. But she doesn't have any money and she wants me to pay for it. I don't believe in that stuff and I don't want to lose my daughter, but she refuses to be sensible. She says she'd rather die than lose a breast, or even her hair. She's totally adamant. So do I give her the money for her trip or refuse and dig in my heels for regular medicine? 

Because my friend Crystal Sage was unable to attend the workshop due to her son Cameron's recovery from infant botulism (he's doing superbly now, by the way), my husband, Jeff, accompanied me on this trip.  Normally, I enjoy late-night conversations with conference participants, but because Jeff was with me, I retired early and actually got some sleep for a change.  Usually, I get two or three hours a night and need a week to recover from these events!  So Jeff was an unusually healthful influence, but I must admit to missing my more decadent schedule a bit.

On the other hand, it helped me to get up early enough to attend Geraldine Amaral's powerful workshop, "Tarot Rituals for Grounding and Protection," which began at 9:00 a.m.  Despite the hour, it was very well-attended, no doubt because of the excellent reputation Geraldine has from her book Tarot Celebrations and her meticulously-organized, information-filled classes.   She has generously placed the outline on her site so that those of you who were unable to attend the conference can access much of the text of her class, including her Tarot Mission and Grounding Spread.  I am glad that you'll get the benefit of the information, but regret that you'll miss out on her warm, engaging presentation style.  Someone observed that her presentation persona is all about service and helping people learn, "not to show off or gratify her ego."  A very accurate assessment, I think.

The experience of consecrating the tarot deck was particularly potent--I cheated and consecrated two decks.  I wasn't the only one, either!  While I could describe this workshop for days, go to the link provided above and garner the great information Geraldine was kind enough to provide for yourself.

After a lunch of Papa John's pizza (my favorite chain), Rachel Pollack presented on "The Shining Tribe Tarot."   Rachel describes her presentation style as "Rachel wanders around and hopes she eventually will arrive somewhere," but I see it far differently.  Rachel's combination of wide-ranging knowledge, compassionate wisdom, brilliance, and irreverent sense of humor make for lectures that stoke your mind into gladly leaping to keep up with her.  An example of her irreverent humor is the "Tarot To-Do List" she prepared with the intent of leaving it in the conference room for an unsuspecting person to find.  It read as follows:

1.  Swindle old widows
2.  Lure children into the occult
3.  Sacrifice above
4.  Install Satan in the White House

Some of us debated whether 25% of this mandate had already been achieved, but Rachel and her mercurial mind had moved on.  Also taking place at the hotel was a Scabble™  tournament, and "in honor of our Scrabble™  neighbors," Rachel created Tarot Scrabble, which we all played before the actual workshop began.  We each pulled seven cards and were required to create a sentence that made sense with the cards, such as, "The Emperor meets the Empress and they go to the Hierophant to get married and become Lovers."  The more cards used, the greater the score.

This spur-of-the-moment exercise reflects Rachel's creativity--and it also succeeded in getting the class to learn and laugh at the same time.  This was appropriate, as Rachel's sense of humor and bone-deep love and knowledge of the tarot, kept us learning and laughing the entire workshop.  She spoke of the central myth of the tarot, pointing out that, while there is disagreement over which school is "The" school, no one ever doubts that the tarot does possess all the secrets of the universe.

She spoke of two different spreads she did with the Shining Tribe deck.  The first she did from a Jewish perspective, asking the Tarot, "Did you exist before creation?"   This was based on the religious belief that the Torah existed before creation.  When she did a reading on Palm Sunday about the resurrection, she was struck by the Christian symbolism she had never intended to put into her deck, noting, "The deck has a conversion when you come at it from a Christian perspective."  The Ten of Rivers was one of the cards that came up in the reading, which evoked the comment, "It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Christ risen!"

At Rachel's request for questions, Geraldine Amaral mentioned having a client who once asked, "Am I the Messiah" and wondered how Rachel would have handled it.  Rachel responded that she would have taken the question seriously and read on it.  This turned into someone asking if she (She?) were the messiah, and we did a reading using the Shining Tribe Tarot to answer that question.

Rachel suggested we look at 2001 as the year of the Magician (20-01), and create a spread about magic(k), so we did just that, using the Shining Tribe deck not only to answer questions we came up with, but also to create the question.  Rachel is fond of using the cards to create the questions as well as providing answers.

Later during the weekend, Donald Michael Kraig talked about his relationships with Scott Cunningham and Israel Regardie, pointing out that people always says in hushed, reverential tones, "You knew Scott Cunningham?  You knew Israel Regardie?  What were they like?"  He noted that the people who are attending tarot conferences today will be asked 10-20 years from now, "You met Geraldine Amaral?  "You took a class with Rachel Pollack?"  The reality is, today people rightly ask in hushed, reverential tones, "You took a class with Rachel Pollack?  What is she like?" 

You will find my answer in the paragraphs above.

Almost immediately following Rachel's workshop was an hour-long session by Barbara Wright, Tarot Acquisitions Manager for Llewellyn.  While Barbara self-deprecatingly referred to it as an "info-mercial", her presentation was fascinating for those of us who always like to know what tarot books and decks are going to be published next.  I was thrilled to find out that Mary K. Greer and Tom Tadfor Little are co-authoring a book on the court cards--I always knew this was a subject that cried out for a book, and who better to write one than Mary Greer (!) and Tom Tadfor Little.   A little known fact: I am (and have been for years) the President of the Secret Tom Tadfor Little fan club.  I guess it won't be secret any longer.  Llewellyn is going to be producing a new line of smaller books that cater to more advanced levels of the tarot, one of which is this court cards book.  Also on the soon-to-be-published list is Tarot of Self-Discovery by Nina Lee Braden, another author and human being I've long admired.  Donald Michael Kraig, about whom you can read more below, will be writing one tentatively titled Tarot and Magick.

Barbara also brought along some proof sheets of the new Tarot of the Saints by Robert Place.  The images were mouth-wateringly lovely, and I can't wait to get this deck!  A real scholar, Place always does work that is substantive and of value.

Other decks that Llewellyn has coming out include one based on The Wizard of Oz, Sarah Ovenall's long-awaited Victoria Regina, and the Pythagorean Tarot by John Opsapaus.  There will be another deck, Wild Spirit, which was described as  a hedge-witch's tarot.

Two tarot books that will be published this year are Christine Jette's Tarot for All Seasons (I can't wait for this one!) and Tarot for a New Generation by Janina Renee (Tarot Spells, Tarot for Everyday).  Amber K. will have a book on tarot published in May of 2002.  It is tentatively titled Heart of Tarot.

In addition to great information, class participants were treated to the hot-off-the-presses Llewellyn 2002 Tarot Calendar and a tarot deck (choices included the Nigel Jackson, Robin Wood, Legend, New Golden Dawn and the brand new and gorgeous World Spirit Tarot).   The group also had the opportunity to look at a panoply of Lo Scarabeo decks, since Llewellyn has recently become their American distributor.

Christiana Gaudet had the last slot of the day, which is traditionally a low-energy time.  Normally, I might have been tempted to give this workshop a miss due to sheer exhaustion, but knowing Christiana, I had no doubt that her presentation on "Interpreting Reversals" would be riveting.  Her vibrant personality ensured that no one would even consider taking a mini-nap on her time, and the subject matter was handled in a way that was accessible to beginners, yet offered new information for advanced and professional practitioners.  She has also generously uploaded her handout on reversals on her site for your perusal.

Following this long day was a banquet where everyone commingled at small tables, which allowed for interaction with presenters and discussion of the day's delights.   The bonhomie continued with an auction of various tarot decks, books, and other goodies, run by the ever-genial John Gilbert (he also served coffee when the waitresses were overburdened with other activities, which I thought showed an unusual and praiseworthy combination of humility and energy).  Profits from the auction go to the ATA's Prison Outreach Program, and they made a good chunk of change, with bidders spending $50 for a personally inscribed copy of Geraldine Amaral's Tarot Celebrations and $20 for an out-of-print copy of Gnosis Magazine.

It was another (relatively) early evening for me.  Nine a.m. rolled around soon enough, and Donald Michael Kraig, author of Modern Magick, Llewellyn's best-selling book on magic, literally rolled in, too (with him was his suitcase-on-wheels).  He spoke about tarot and magick, beginning his lecture by printing TFYQA on the blackboard.  The initials stand for "Think For Yourself, Question Authority" and he encouraged us to question him, as well.  As Kraig is a traditionally-trained magician, it was refreshing to hear him say that you must make any ritual your own, whether or not you're using traditional materials.

He was very entertaining.  My favorite of Kraig's anecdotes was about an Israeli woman who had been a soldier, who was teaching policemen to meditate in order to assist them with handling crisis situations.  Because macho policemen would sneer at the concept of being taught such a new age subject as meditation, the Israeli woman called the program "Teaching the Art of Sniper's Breath."  Re-framing can be an important tool for learning, can't it?

Kraig discussed the difference between High and Low Magick, and stressed that rituals should never become habits, because the whole point of magical ritual is that it has the effect of changing consciousness.  He taught an excellent meditative technique using the tarot to still your mind.  Meditate on a card and study it to remember it visually.  Then close your eyes and bring the image to your mind.  Look at it for a while and then let the image fade away.  As the card fades away, your mind goes with it.  I found this very effective.

He also talked about the technique of "Dancing the Tarot," which he learned from the now (sadly out of print) Llewellyn Practical Guide to the Magick of Tarot by Denning and Phillips.  His example was a ritual to help a querent to move from an egotistical state to a place of giving.  He suggests using the Sun to represent the "before" position of egocentrism to the Hierophant, who is physically blessing others.  The querent should imagine him- or herself in the position of the child on the Sun card (using the Rider-Waite-Smith deck as the "default" deck, as Rachel calls it) and physically duplicate it, feeling that he is glorying in the attention of others and feeling the horse beneath him as a conquered beast doing his will...then move slowly into the position of the Hierophant, feeling the physical change that emerges from blessing and healing others and being in service.

At the end of the workshop, Kraig, who also authored a book on sex magick, gave out a handout on "Suggested Keys to Tarot Sex Magick."  These are reminiscent of  some of Pattie Canova's suggestions in Tarot Sutra.  Other handouts included one on Candle Magick, Ritual Structure, and the Golden Dawn Invocation of the Presiding Archangel of the Tarot.

Following the lunch break, I gave a presentation on "Telling the Story With Tarot."  Its focus was on using the tarot to create stories, which is a technique that can also be used to give readings, literally "telling the tarot story" with the querent as protagonist.  We began by talking about the creative process and the attendant anxieties that apply to the six steps of the creative process as conceptualized by Eric Maisel in his brilliant book, Fearless Creating.  We did a group reading using a spread I created based on Maisel's paradigm, which explores the way these fears manifest and potential solutions for same.

We then used a template to create a tarot story, again as a group.  Don Davies ended up being both scribe and storyteller--and he showed star quality in the latter role.  Later he confided he had been an award-winning storyteller in high school.  His rendition had everyone rolling in the aisles.  As our last exercise, we broke into pairs, using a slightly more complex template to create a tarot story.  I provided a Court Card Background List that helps the storyteller create more fully-dimensional characters--and also helps the reader create a personal and concrete image of the court cards.  Afterwards, we shared some of the stories and looked at them in terms of our own personal stories and issues.

If you would like to create a tarot story using the templates I created, I'd love to see your resulting work.  Please email me and let me know how they worked for you.

Much as I would have loved to chat and chat after my workshop, the hour was late and we had a long drive back.  Another wonderful conference was over...

Still, I have some great memories of "meeting" friends I've made in cyberspace, as well as new people whom I hope will join my favorite e-lists.   In addition, Rachel Pollack told me that Tarot Passages is her homepage when she turns on her computer.   That made my weekend! 

I know I sound like a broken record, but tarot conferences are something every tarot enthusiast should have the opportunity to experience.  I maintain a list of conferences, so be sure to visit it often.  Perhaps the next one will be in your town.

Article and page © 2001 Diane Wilkes











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