Michelle Tea and Modern Tarot
Today, we’re speaking with Michelle Tea, author of the book Modern Tarot, Connecting with Your Higher Self through the Wisdom of the Cards. (Published by Harper-Collins). With her unique insight, inviting pop sensibility, and wicked humor, Modern Tarot is a fascinating journey through the cards that teaches how to use this tradition to connect with our higher selves.
Michelle and I share the same desire to bring a modern approach to Tarot. Whether you’re a committed seeker or a digital-age skeptic—or perhaps a little of both—Tea’s essential guide opens the power of tarot to you. Modern Tarot doesn’t require you to believe in the supernatural or narrowly focus on the tarot as a divination tool. Tea instead provides incisive descriptions of each of the 78 cards in the tarot system—each illustrated in the charmingly offbeat style of cartoonist Amanda Verwey—and introduces specially designed card-based rituals that can be used with any deck to guide you on a path toward radical growth and self-improvement.
In this podcast episode you’ll learn:
- Michelle’s philosophy on modern Tarot and how it can become more mainstream
- Her vision for Tarot in the future
- Her process for writing her book Modern Tarot
Buy Michelle Tea’s book Modern Tarot, Connecting with Your Higher Self through the Wisdom of the Cards
Check out Michelle’s website at MichelleTea.com
Learn the Five Simple Steps to Read Tarot with Confidence
You’re listening to the Biddy Tarot Podcast, and this is Episode 82: Modern Tarot with Michelle Tea.
Welcome to the Biddy Tarot Podcast, where you'll learn how to connect more deeply with your intuition and live an empowered and enlightened life with the Tarot cards as your guide.
Listen as Brigit and her guests share their very best tips and strategies to help you read Tarot with confidence. Now, here is your host, Brigit Esselmont.
MODERN TAROT WITH MICHELLE TEA
Hello, and welcome back to the Biddy Tarot Podcast. As always, it’s always my pleasure to be in your earbuds talking about Tarot. Now, today, we’re speaking with the well-known author Michelle Tea. She is the author of many young adult fiction books but also the author of the book Modern Tarot: Connecting with Your Higher Self through the Wisdom of the Cards, and it has just been released, and I think it’s marvelous.
This is your 21st-century primer on Tarot that can really be used with any Tarot deck. What Michelle has really focused her energy on doing inside of this book is looking at how we can bring those Tarot cards into the modern day. She really honours and respects the ancient traditions of the Tarot but then brings it into the now and talks about some of her personal memoirs and her stories as she relates to the different Tarot cards. Plus, she has this really neat thing that with each of the Tarot cards she includes a special spell or ritual that you can put into place so that you can really experience and manifest that particular energy of the card.
So, Michelle and I, we really share that same desire to bring a modern approach to Tarot. With Michelle’s unique insight, her wicked humour, her groundedness, this book Modern Tarot is just a fascinating journey through the Tarot cards that really teaches us how to use this traditional tool in order to connect us with our higher selves.
Now, in this interview, it’s really neat—we cover not just Michelle’s book but this bigger idea of Tarot in the mainstream. How do we bring such an ancient tool like Tarot into the modern day? And how do we do it in a way that is honouring and respecting the traditions of the Tarot cards?
Michelle is also a real advocate for the queer community, and we talk about how Tarot is starting to evolve more into a queer-friendly deck as well as more of the traditional aspects of the Tarot.
Now, before I just keep rambling on here, I want to make sure that we just get straight into this interview, so please welcome Michelle Tea, author of Modern Tarot.
TALKING TAROT WITH MICHELLE TEA
BRIGIT: All right, so welcome, Michelle. I am so excited to have you here. How are you doing today?
MICHELLE: I’m wonderful, thank you. I’m happy to be here.
BRIGIT: Awesome. We’re here talking about your book, which is Modern Tarot. Before we get into the book and inspiration and so on, tell me a little bit about yourself because you're not a typical Tarot reader per se. You are author extraordinaire and so many other good things. For those who might not know you, please share a little bit of your story.
MICHELLE: OK. I am a writer. I’ve written a lot of books—mostly memoirs, but I’ve also done a young adult fantasy series for McSweeney’s, and my most recent book is called Black Wave, and it’s a speculative memoir that takes place in 1999 but as if the apocalypse happened in 1999. Yeah, I’m a writer, and I’ve been publishing my books since the ‘90s.
I’ve also done a lot of literary organising, being part of the literary community in San Francisco in the ‘90s that was populated by a lot of queer folks, a lot of people who didn’t go to college to learn how to write—they were self-taught. There was a big open-mic scene in San Francisco. So, I kind of came up in that environment, and it became really important to me to work to create venues for folks like myself to get our work heard.
I started an all-girl performance tour called Sister Spit. It’s still going. I created a queer-centred literary non-profit called Radar Productions. I ran it for 13 years, and then I handed it over to the next generation. That’s still happening in San Francisco.
Yeah, most of my time and my work has been in writing, and then I’ve always had Tarot on the side, always reading Tarot for myself and for my friends, often having New Year’s parties where I would just read everyone’s Tarot cards until I pass out in an exhausted, emotionally drained heap at the end of the day and cry.
Sometimes I’ve made a living off of it. It was definitely the first thing when I moved to San Francisco from New England. I was kind of feral and didn’t know what I would do with myself, but I knew I could read Tarot cards, so my first job was doing that on Haight Street, first literally on the street for donations, and then a kindly shopkeeper took me in and said, “Why don’t you be my shop’s Tarot reader?” So it got a little bit more “profesh.” I’ve never made my living doing it, but I guess I’ve supplemented it. But mostly, it’s for myself and for my friends.
BRIGIT: Wonderful. And what inspired you to make that pivot between writing that young adult fiction to then “Hey, I’m going to write about Tarot”? What inspired that?
MICHELLE: Well, for a very long time, I have wanted to write a Tarot book. There are certainly great Tarot books out there, and I continued to learn from and reread certain books, but they’re very esoteric, or sometimes they just feel a little dated or at the very least haven’t weaved into the understanding of the Tarot the contemporary, real-world concerns that I at least have as a human and as a spiritual person and as a Tarot reader.
So, I’ve always wanted to do a book that would kind of put my own spin and stamp on the Tarot and put my two cents in. The stars just aligned. It sort of came together when it did, and I’m really happy publishing it with HarperElixir. They’re a great New Age press that wanted a contemporary Tarot book. It just worked out!
BRIGIT: Beautiful. I mean, I resonate with you so much in terms of… Like, how can we make Tarot this more modern-day Tarot, and how do we bring it into the now, so it’s relevant versus what you see in so many other books? It’s great in terms of traditional Tarot.
BRIGIT: But I think we also need the next evolution of Tarot, which is what you’ve clearly done in your book Modern Tarot. I just loved reading even the introduction. I’m like, “Yes! This is it! Awesome.”
MICHELLE: I’m so glad it resonated with you. It makes me really happy! Yeah, I mean, by all means, it’s preserving the beautiful mystery of it but, at the same time, grounding it in the world that we live in today. It was fun for me to take that challenge on. So much of the imagery in Tarot can be sort of medieval, and what does that look like today in my world? There are all kinds of worlds happening on our planet right now, but in my Western world here, living in the United States, what does the Chariot card look like? What does it mean to me? I’m not jumping in my Chariot and going off to war, so what am I doing? Just grounding it in contemporary scenarios was really fun for me.
BRIGIT: Yeah. How do you think we can preserve this ancient wisdom and tradition of the Tarot and also bring it into the everyday and more modern times? How can we create that?
MICHELLE: Yeah, I think by focusing on energies, thinking about the things that are presented in the Tarot as energies and not being so literal with it I think helps for me.
One problem that I have with the Tarot is how binary-gendered it is. It’s very male/female. In the world that I live in, first of all, it’s not male/female. There are lots of genders in between those. And then also, things that are seen as male can also be female and vice versa. So, for me, it was really important to look at the masculine of the Tarot as an energy that can be embodied or enacted by anybody. A woman can be possessing masculine traits. A man can be possessing feminine traits. Any gender can be possessing any combination of those. So, when you get cards that tend to be very gendered, like the Court Cards or some of the Major Arcanas, for me, it was really important to keep that in mind. What does it look like for a man to get the Empress card? What does it look like for a cis-gendered female to get the Emperor card? Taking it away from literal bodies and making more energies that anybody can be working with.
BRIGIT: Yeah, I think that’s really important, and it reflects, I think, where we’re going in terms of our collective consciousness in a way, in that we’re not looking for a masculine-dominated world, and we’re not looking for a feminine-dominated world. We’re looking for this place that’s this perfect balance between both the masculine and the feminine.
BRIGIT: And seeing that in the Tarot cards in the way that you're describing is just really in alignment with that, I believe.
MICHELLE: I think the youth will save us all from gender. I feel like there are so many young people now that are just like, “What are you talking about? Gender?” They’re really playing with it and messing around with it. They’re liberating themselves from gender, and I think, in the process, they could liberate our culture from gender, which would be a huge relief. Gender is so wonderful and so much fun, and it’s also been oppressive to so many people.
BRIGIT: Yeah, interesting. In that case, do you find yourself reading with the Rider-Waite, or are you using more modern kinds of decks, or even queer-friendly decks?
MICHELLE: I have a huge Tarot collection. I love Tarot cards. I kind of can’t say no to one. So, I do read with the Rider-Waite deck. It’s the first deck I ever had. I know it so well. It’s so classic to me. It’s the deck that all decks sort of go off from.
But I do have other decks that are a bit more queer-friendly. There’s one deck that’s called The Daughters of the Moon deck, and it’s more of a second-wave lesbian feminist deck, but it is really a great, wonderful deck. They put a lot of work into being very diverse ethnically and with representations of different gods and goddesses… Well, not very many gods—let me correct that! Lots of goddesses, and it’s a really great deck that I love. There are others, too. Oh boy, there’s a wonderful deck that I am so sad that I am not right now at my own home! I’m visiting family, and I’m away from my little box of Tarot. I wish I could just dig in there and pull some more out, but there are lots and lots of decks out there that are kind of veering away. I was just speaking to somebody, and they were telling me about the Black Power deck, which sounds incredible. It’s only Major Arcana, and it’s all icons in black culture, which sounds really amazing.
MICHELLE: I just think it’s great if people… Oh, Christy Road is a wonderful artist from New York City who is putting together a deck called The New World Tarot, which is a sort of post-apocalyptic deck, but it’s the new world growing on the ashes of the old, and it’s very queer. It’s very gender-queer. There are tonnes of people of colour and different body sizes, and it’s super inspiring.
BRIGIT: Yeah, interesting. I just find it so fascinating to see how Tarot is evolving and the speed at which it’s evolving, particularly in the last 10 or 15 years, thanks to the internet and things like Kickstarter.
MICHELLE: Totally! Christy is funding her deck through Kickstarter, I think. And there was another deck called The Collective Tarot, which a bunch of queer artists on the West Coast of the U.S. put together and really altered some of the meanings and made the scenarios be at home in different queer culture scenarios. So, that’s a great deck, too, if somebody is looking for something that’s a little less binary or straight.
BRIGIT: Yeah, neat. Awesome. So, in your book, The Modern Tarot, are you only referring to the Rider-Waite? The bulk of the book is around the Tarot cards and applying more modern meanings, I suppose.
BRIGIT: Are they based on the Rider-Waite or more kind of this collective interpretation of different decks that you’ve got on hand?
MICHELLE: They’re based on the Rider-Waite because I feel like that is the deck that so many people learn on. It’s people’s first deck. It’s a wildly accessible deck, and it’s the deck that so many other decks derive from, so it felt really good to work with that classic Tarot imagery. I am referring to that, but I think that you can use my book with any deck that has derived itself from the Rider-Waite deck or from the Tarot of the Marseilles that came before it because it stuck pretty close, I think, to those meanings. But yeah, I felt like I had to pick one deck to focus on, and that, to me, just seemed like the obvious one.
BRIGIT: Yeah, it’s quite interesting because, I mean, I use the Rider-Waite as well, especially in teaching.
BRIGIT: And I do it because it is a very commonly accepted deck.
BRIGIT: And then there is a part of me going, “Oh, I really want to bring Tarot into that modern space, and maybe we should be using a more modern deck.” But the problem is because there are so many different modern decks, you can't just choose one and say, “All right, I'm going to teach this particular deck,” because it just doesn't have the same weight as the Rider-Waite, if that makes sense.
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MICHELLE: I know. Yeah.
BRIGIT: A bit of a quandary.
MICHELLE: It’s really true, and there are other decks out there that people have put their own spin on, and it doesn’t necessarily resonate with me personally, so it’s almost like I’d rather use the Rider-Waite and then put my spin on it—do you know what I mean?
MICHELLE: But that’s just me. Maybe I’m a control freak! There are a lot of great decks out there, but for me… I mean, if I’m reading my own cards, I’ll play around and utilise all the decks that I have because I love them. But if I’m reading for other people, I like using the Rider-Waite deck. Even somebody who is not a Tarot reader or very well-versed in Tarot, if I’m reading with that deck, it might be a little bit more familiar to them. Also, I use the Crowley deck, the Thoth deck, a lot as well. I’ll kind of go between those two decks.
BRIGIT: Ah, interesting.
MICHELLE: But I feel like Aleister Crowley already had his own system when he built that deck, so I didn’t feel like taking that on necessarily.
BRIGIT: I had that when I was probably in my early twenties, and it was just too much for me. I sent it off onto eBay and said goodbye.
MICHELLE: Yeah, there’s a lot of energy in that deck. But what I like about both of these decks, Rider-Waite and the Thoth deck, is the art was done by women in both of the decks. The artists were women. Pamela Coleman-Smith did the Rider-Waite, and she was a lesbian, biracial, super bohemian woman who has been a little bit forgotten when we talk about this deck, so I’m sort of into talking about her since I have been talking about this deck so much lately because of the book. And Lady Frieda Harris was Aleister Crowley’s collaborator with the Crowley deck, so that’s something that’s neat about both of them.
BRIGIT: Very nice. So, what do you think about this idea of bringing Tarot more into the mainstream and making it more accessible? I think that’s something that your book does really well in that it makes the Tarot cards a lot more accessible, but I know that there’s also some resistance around “Should we keep this as a sacred art with its mystery and not let it get out into the masses?” What are your thoughts on that?
MICHELLE: My thought is that the masses are sacred, so I think that I’m not in favour of withholding spiritual systems or ways of self-knowledge away from people. I think that everyone has the right to learn more about themselves and learn more about the divinity of the universe and explore the mystery of the universe through this tool that has provided this wondrous way to look at our life’s path to so many people. So, I think it’s wonderful.
I have witnessed a huge surge of popularity with Tarot right now, and I’m never seeing it in a way where it’s getting dumbed down or made more pedestrian or anything. I always see it being approached respectfully and lovingly and with a lot of gratitude, so I think it’s great.
I think that people come to the Tarot because they want to learn more about themselves, and they want a tool that gives them the space and the ability to think about the universe in a spiritual. Not a lot in our culture really pushes people to think about the world that we live in and the path that we’re on in that manner, and we’re so lucky that we have the Tarot to frame our experiences like that. I think it’s really great that more people are utilising it.
BRIGIT: Yeah, absolutely. What would you say would be your vision for Tarot? Where would you love to see Tarot going or people responding to Tarot in the future?
MICHELLE: I mean, I think we see less and less of people being scared of it, which I think is great. It’s so funny to me whenever I have seen people be scared of it. It’s a bunch of paper that was printed in a printing press! What do you think this is? I think that people don’t understand that the energy of the Tarot is their own. We animate these cards with our own energy and our own intention. In that way, it’s a beautiful microcosm of how we animate the world around us with our own energy.
I guess I’d like to see more of that, more people not being afraid of the Tarot and the weird, spooky myths about it dropping away and more people looking at it as what it is, which is just a tool that lets you connect deeper to yourself. I like that a lot.
BRIGIT: Yep, absolutely. Tell me a little bit about the process of writing this book. What happened for you? I mean, it was just a really boring process—you wrote some words on paper or whatever. Or did you have periods where you would be exploring a card, and perhaps something is starting to manifest in your life as you were exploring that card? What happened around that?
MICHELLE: I mean, I definitely felt like I was in a heightened state, for sure, while I was working on it, and I really enjoyed that. It felt like such a treat, really, to be able to spend so much time pondering the Tarot because I just love it so much. And yeah, I mean, I think that the Tarot a tool for heightening our awareness of our own intuition and of synchronicity and of things greater than ourselves. For sure, while I was working on this book, I was in that heightened state a lot more, and I loved it. I really loved writing the spells.
I didn’t necessarily know I was going to do that when I first started working on the book, and I found myself writing a card and then thinking about the person picking that card and wanting to help them. If somebody got a card that was a tough card. I was like, “Oh gosh! What can I do to help a person?” And then I just thought, “Oh, maybe I want to offer spells that can help people work this energy out.” If it’s good energy, keep it rolling. If it’s hard energy, help them through it. So, writing the spells was really…
I used to write a lot of poetry, and when I started writing prose and novels and memoirs, it kind of stopped, and it felt like writing poetry. It was really so enjoyable writing spells. I’m obsessed with spells and crystals and the different powers and meanings that humans have attributed to plants and herbs and rocks for so long, and it was just so much fun for me to play in that folklore and make my own connections.
BRIGIT: Yeah, absolutely. I think having the spells as part of the book is a way of turning the cards into action, do you know what I mean?
MICHELLE: Yeah, I do!
BRIGIT: So, instead of them being this fortune-telling “Here’s your future, cheerio, and good luck!”, it’s more like, “What do you want to create? Here are some ways and rituals that you can go about doing that.” I think that’s really neat.
MICHELLE: For people who may be a little bit intimidated by Tarot, I think that there’s this idea that you're going to get some card dealt to you, and you're screwed—it’s all over! And, of course, we know that that’s not the case, but I think it is great to help empower people to be like, “OK, so you got a tough card—what’s your next step? What do you need to look at? What do you need to learn about your situation that’s going to help you clear it out and bring in the next vibe?”
BRIGIT: Yep. When you were writing you book, who were you intentionally writing it for? Young people? Everyone? Did you have someone in mind as you were writing it?
MICHELLE: I try not to just as a general practise because I feel like it can really trip you up as a writer to think about who is going to read your book. If you conjure some person, and then you’ve got your own biases about what you think they need to hear, then you're tailoring your book for a ghost, really! I just sort of rode my own inspiration and put down what seemed interesting or inspiring to me with the hope that my enthusiasm would be somewhat contagious, I suppose, and hope that it is interesting for other people as well. But I did want to make sure that it was a book that someone like myself, who has been reading Tarot for 30 years, could get something out of. And also, someone who has been curious about Tarot but has never had a deck could also look at the book and say, “Oh, this is actually super intriguing and not quite as intimidating as I feared,” and it could help them find their way to the cards, too.
BRIGIT: Yeah, absolutely. Having read some of the card meanings… I was just diving into the stories and going, “Oh, so juicy!” I’m curious—do you see it as a book that… Well, actually, let me back step. I really strongly advocate that people do not do a Tarot reading with a book in their hand, but do you see it as a book more for reading in between readings or as guiding a specific reading?
MICHELLE: Well, I think that… I guess it depends on what people’s processes are, you know? I feel like part of the way that I kind of keep up on Tarot is I do readings with the book in my hand a lot but only for myself. If I’m giving readings for other people, I use a deck that I know by heart and that I don’t need that. But even decks I know by heart I like to refresh myself on sometimes because I find that I’m only focusing on one aspect of the card at the expense of others, so it can be good for me to refresh myself and remind myself of how complex some of the cards are. But I think it’s up to folks. I think it’s something that they can read separately on their own to sort of round out their idea of the Tarot. I think that somebody could sit down with a deck and certainly use it as they’re doing a reading for themselves or for their friends.
I think they can be used a lot of different ways, which is what I hoped. That was my intention in writing it, that it was user-friendly for sure, but also you could just read it kind of like a book. I do put a lot of my own personal stories in there. I’m a memoir writer at heart, so that comes frighteningly naturally to me.
BRIGIT: I think it’s a really smart way of bringing the Tarot to life. Again, it is modern Tarot because you're showing how these cards play out in everyday life versus, like you were saying, the Chariot going to war, or here’s the Page dressed in a funny outfit that we never see again!
BRIGIT: The stories I think are really helpful in just bringing it to life a lot more. Excellent. Well, is there anything about the book that we haven’t covered today that you’ve got to let me know about?
MICHELLE: I really love the illustrations. They were done by an artist really love, Amanda Verwey. She’s great, and she really sort of took the reins and ran off with it, using the Rider-Waite deck but modernising it and using people from her diverse community of friends as models for it. I just that the art that accompanies the book is so perfect. I mean, it’s clearly rooted in the Rider-Waite deck, but it takes off with this funny style that is very cool and interesting. I think it’s a huge boon to the book that those illustrations are in there.
BRIGIT: Wonderful. Excellent. And what’s coming up next for you? Do you see more Tarot in your future, or are there other writing projects that you’ve got?
MICHELLE: You know, there will always be more Tarot in my future, and I guess we’ll see how it goes. I really loved writing spells, so I feel like I would love maybe to create a book that was specifically a modern spell book I think could be so enjoyable and helpful. And then I have a novel or two that I’m working on, so there’s a lot. Nothing is far along enough right now to talk about, but lots of things are in play.
BRIGIT: Yes, beautiful. Excellent. Where can people find out more about you?
MICHELLE: You can go to my website MichelleTea.com. I'm on Facebook, I'm on Instagram, I'm on Twitter, so you can find me in all of those places. I'm pretty active out there, so hopefully, it'll be fun for you. In fact, I'm doing… Well, I guess I don't know if I'll be doing this by the time it airs, but I am doing Tarot Tuesdays every Tuesday at [7:00] on Facebook Live. Folks can come and post some questions, and I'll pick some cards.
BRIGIT: Oh, neat!
BRIGIT: That’s good.
MICHELLE: That’s been pretty fun.
BRIGIT: Yeah, I am loving Facebook Live. It’s such a cool way to connect with people and, again, it’s modern-day Tarot.
MICHELLE: Yep, definitely.
BRIGIT: Yep, awesome. Well, those links will just be posted over at BiddyTarot.com/82, so you can find out more. Michelle, thank you so much for today’s conversation. I’m really enjoying your book.
MICHELLE: Thank you.
BRIGIT: I just think it hits the mark in terms of bringing Tarot into the modern-day world and making it accessible at attainable. So, thank you so much for bringing this work into the world. I appreciate it.
MICHELLE: Thank you. That means so much coming from you! I love your site so much. Thank you for it! Thanks for all the work that you do.
There you have it. I hope you enjoyed that conversation with Michelle Tea as much as I did. Now, in the episode, I accidentally said you’ll find the show notes at BiddyTarot.com/82. What I meant to say is you’ll find it over at BiddyTarot.com/btp82. So, make sure you go there. You’ll get all the links to Michelle’s website and also where you can get a copy of her latest book. I hope you really enjoyed today, and I really do encourage you to dive into Michelle’s book. Again, it’s just a really fabulous way of connecting with the Tarot in the now and in this more modern day. I hope you enjoy. Have a great week ahead, and I look forward to connecting with you again very, very soon.
Bye for now!