When I was a girl, I learned to read cards from my Romani grandmother in her charmingly cramped trailer. A diasporic ethnic group originally from India, Roma—more commonly known by the racial slur “gypsy”—were historically limited to performance, fortune telling, or other handicraft work, due to persecution.
My grandmother taught me how to divine the traditional way, using a deck of playing cards. But over the years, I have fallen in love with tarot, which are the predecessors of today’s playing cards, first appearing in Europe in the 1500s. My grandmother wanted to teach me to read cards so I could carry on the family trade (which I have), but also because there is something intrinsically healing about gathering together to solve life’s problems.
Reading cards, my grandmother and I learned about each other’s hopes and fears, discussed our dreams, and sat quietly together concentrating on candle flames and asking our ancestors for help. I think it’s one of the best ways to understand a loved one. Romani fortune telling, at its best, is therapeutic in nature and seeks to heal the past self and better navigate the present. By the end of a good session, you should feel like you understand yourself and your world better. Readings aren’t meant to reveal the future because the future is always being written, but a good reading should reveal the person.
Read tarot with a friend.
I’m not saying to go seek out a professional tarot reader, unless that’s an experience you would like to have (in which case, go forth and enjoy!), but it is a good idea to have someone else read for you. If you want to have a more intimate (and affordable) experience with fortune telling, you can do a free tarot reading with a trusted, open-hearted friend.
In the Romani tradition, it’s often frowned upon to read for yourself. My grandmother explained it to me this way: “Reading for yourself can never truly be accurate because your hopes and fears will cloud your vision.” It’s too easy to slip down a bad introspection spiral or to become intoxicated by fantasy. However, when you swap readings with a friend, their outside point of view can help you see yourself and your situation more objectively.
Even if you and your friend have absolutely zero tarot experience, that’s OK. They will likely see the symbols on the cards differently than you will, which can lead to fresh perspectives on even the oldest problems. Also, they likely know you pretty well already, so they have a context for the advice they give you. This is especially helpful if you’re the type of person who secretly wishes to talk about your feelings but needs a tool to help facilitate actually expressing them with another human (which, yes, can be scary).
At the very least, you will have an open discussion about what’s been on your minds, and best case scenario, the cards will turn up some synchronicity—and your friend might tell you exactly what you needed to hear.
Select the right tools.
Tarot cards offer symbols of the major and minor arcana, as well as the four suites, and the numbers that accompany each card. There’s an old belief that you shouldn’t buy your own tarot cards; they should be gifted to you. There’s an easy way around that. Just ask a friend to get you a deck (or the deck of your choosing) and then take them out to lunch or something in exchange—or you and the friend who you plan to read with could also each buy a deck and then swap.
There are so many different types of decks that it can be overwhelming to choose the ‘right’ one, so keep it simple and choose a deck that you feel drawn to—or that you just like, for whatever reason. Any deck you pick should have a guide to help you interpret the cards and learn different spreads (ways of laying out the cards and reading them), and that can be a very helpful resource.
There are also many books about tarot reading if you want to go a bit deeper. However, I’ve been reading professionally for many years now, and I find that more often than not, my clients will have their own feelings and connections to the cards, and those personal resonances are just as relevant.
Care for your tarot cards.
Make sure you treat your cards well. In the Romani tradition, always use a handkerchief or scarf to lay the cards on. They should never touch a table or any other surface without a cloth between them, because as my grandmother says, “They need to be babied. Speak to them lovingly, shuffle them gently, and apologize if you drop them.” Likewise, after you finish reading with them, you should thank them before you put them away. She also insists that they like to be kept in silk or satin bags, or wrapped in silk scarves, or another soft material. She says they prefer light, airy colors, naturally. Your cards are fancy babies.
It’s an excellent idea to also treat your body well before you read cards. Make sure you’ve eaten and are hydrated. Readings are a way to care about yourself and take interest in your well-being, and also to allow yourself access to your deepest dreams and possibilities you might not otherwise let yourself consider.
Open with a ritual.
Before a reading, it’s important to start with a ritual (big or small) to relax you and open yourself up to your own insight and intuition. Before we read for each other, my grandmother would always have me meditate with her first, though she wouldn’t have called it meditation.
We usually sat in front of her ancestor altar, a common fixture in Romani households, often consisting of photos of deceased family members and a single white candle, and during holidays, little offerings of food and alcohol. Here she would ask me to breathe deeply and evenly, and to empty my mind, imagining its spaciousness. We were making room for it to be filled with messages from ancestors and spirits of goodwill. Then we would ask these ancestors and spirits to help guide us in helping the client (in this case, each other) as much as possible.
Setting an intention like this, to help each other, or to see clearly and compassionately, is a great idea. It sets the tone for your work. You may also consider setting the intention to invite yourself to be open to what the cards have to say, and also hold the knowledge that what the cards may suggest isn’t set in stone—that you always have control over your choices.
The ancestor altar meditation with a candle is my grandmother’s ritual, but over time, I’ve added elements that make me feel more relaxed, open, and ready to sift through universal symbols. Before you read, you may like to take a bath with rose petals, salts, or oils; burn sage, copal, or incense; conjure a circle, witch-style; stretch; or pray. You might only set a ritual for a minute or two, or you may want to luxuriate in preparations for longer.
The possibilities are endless, and the point of it is three-fold: A ritual will signify to your brain that you are about to enter a certain mindset, one of openness and intuition. It will relax you and make it easier to read for yourself with more accuracy, or be more open to someone else’s reading. And lastly, it will show you what kinds of self-care you are craving and give you a perfect excuse to take some time for yourself and care for that mind and body of yours.
Engage in the reading.
Once you’ve set your stage with a nice scarf and a little opening ritual (whether that’s a few deep breaths with a candle or an elaborate sage-burning affair), it’s time to get down to the reading. If you are reading for your friend, ask them to shuffle the cards while thinking of their question.
Questions might include the following: “What should I be doing with my life? Is this the right partner/career/decision for me? What should I do to be happy? How can I heal? How can I find the right partner/career? Should I change my job/go freelance/start a family?”
Generally, it’s best to try to focus on one issue at a time—for instance, do one reading for career and another for love. Sometimes, though, especially in longer readings, they overlap anyway. If your friend doesn’t have a specific question, then they can ask the cards to please tell them what they need to know.
The deck you’re using may have suggested spreads (arrangements of the cards) with instructions for how to read in their prescribed style. You can use any of those if you like, though if this is your first time reading, I suggest picking the simplest version: a “three-card spread,” which is exactly what it sounds like.
Start with the three-card spread.
Once your friend is done shuffling and asking their question, ask them to pick three cards from the deck (without peeking!) and lay them on their cloth, one after the other, face-up.
Reading from left to right, the first card is the past. The second card is the present. And the third card is the possible future. A lot of how you read these depends on what the cards mean, but a good general approach is to think of the first card representing what the person has recently conquered or let go of, or what it was that got them to where they are right now. The second card almost always represents the person in the present, and/or their present situation. If it’s a love reading, it might even symbolize their love interest. And then the third card often represents what the future might look like if things continue as they are.
If it’s a negative card outcome, then the present and future cards usually have some wisdom to avoid or neutralize any negative qualities the future card has. If it’s a positive outcome, the present and future cards often have some tips to help you get to that good place.
You might want to do a couple of three-card readings for each other on different topics; the more you practice, the easier it gets. The most important part is that you two are talking about what the cards bring up for both of you, how they relate to the question, and how you feel about it. The discussion is where the real magic is born.
Practice “first thought, best thought.”
My grandmother insists that you should always look at the cards first without looking up the meanings in the book, and draw your own conclusions. You can interpret a tarot card like any other work of art, starting with questions like, How does each card make you feel? Why? Are there symbols that stand out to you, or that feel familiar?
You can think about color use, drawing style, negative space, numbers… anything that touches you. Depending on the spread you use, whether it’s the three-card spread or one you choose from your book, the cards will represent certain things about you or your situation, and that will color your interpretation too.
You may also notice a theme, like you may have a lot of one suite: cups, coins, swords, or wands. Each suite represents an element—water, earth, air, and fire, respectively. Perhaps you might identify with the elements that appear on a basic level. The beat poet Allen Ginsberg advised, “first thought, best thought” while editing one’s own work, and the same goes for fortune telling.
Your first impressions are generally the closest to the bones of a situation, and free-association is more likely to show you exactly what is troubling you, and open up wisdom you already have but may be repressing for any number of reasons. Then you can look up the meanings in the book that comes with your tarot deck for more ideas, if you feel so inclined.
My grandmother strongly believes all fortune telling books are garbage and that intuition and interpretation are skills that can only be honed through self-discovery and/or a family tradition passed down orally. That’s the old-school approach though, so go ahead and read about it if you want to.
Come at it from the side.
My grandmother conceded that reading in a response to a specific, impersonal question like, “What do I need to know about this upcoming project at work?” is much less emotionally risky than sitting down with a deck of cards and asking, “What’s wrong with me?” and proceeding to pull card after card, obsessing over every one of your perceived card flaws, until you’ve pulled the whole deck.
If I’m feeling a little emotionally vulnerable, I steer away from more personal topics, like family and love, and do three-card-spreads for my various projects. Asking for advice for my book or an upcoming dance performance feels a lot more objective than a more personal reading, and yet, often when I ask about the work I’m doing, I get some good advice for my mental health too.
If I have writer’s block, for instance, there’s probably something lingering in my heart that I resolutely decided not to feel—for instance, to write effectively about my childhood, I actually need to feel some feelings about the hard things that happened back then. It might not hurt to work on trusting my love interest too, and letting go of those old fears born of early life trauma. Coming at a problem from the side, like “How can I focus better at work?” is likely to reveal answers that might have felt too intimidating to really see when looking at them head-on.
If this approach feels like it would suit you, then you might enjoy a book by Jessa Crispin called The Creative Tarot, which offers a number of mini-spreads with different representations for each card, depending on what you’re asking about. The book mainly deals with questions you have about creative work, although her methods could apply to other queries too.
Remember that moderation is key.
While it’s absolutely lovely to do these readings with friends whenever the mood strikes, it might also be beneficial to make these readings a ritual, like a standing coffee and tarot date. Maybe you could make time to read each other monthly or bi-weekly. You might even like to use markers, like reading at the full moon or at the turn of the seasons (solstice and equinox readings are fun).
Regularity offers structure to your self-discovery, and you’re more likely to see themes in your thoughts and behavior that you can either nourish or let go of, depending on what you need. I don’t recommend reading for each other more than once a week, though. Give yourself time to live your life without overly examining it too.
In the spirit of moderation, it’s probably best that you don’t ask the cards the same questions over and over again, because according to my grandmother, that insults them and makes them cranky, rendering them much less likely to help you out. This also keeps you focusing on moving your life forward, and while you and your friend might rehash some familiar themes, particularly as patterns in your behavior and/or the cards you deal emerge, ultimately you’ll be exploring new interests and thoughts with your friend.
Just like any conversation, you want to keep it fresh and authentic. Your mutual curiosity about each other’s lives and well-being might also spur you both to positive action, breaking unhelpful patterns, and trying new things. But if it’s been a few months since you’ve asked about something and you want to check in again, that’s fine. Or if a situation you’ve already asked about has dramatically changed—like your partner breaks up with you a week after you do a love reading—then it’s cool to check-in again.
Even on the most basic level, you are creating a good support system by nurturing this relationship with a friend in which you can thoughtfully and productively listen to each other and work through some big feelings. Any wisdom that the cards spark in you two is the cherry on top.
Opt for a one-a-day practice.
If you really want to read for yourself, here’s a little something you can do: You can practice card reading more often without fear of self-obsession or pissing off the cards if you only pull one card a day. This isn’t something my grandmother would ever do, but a lot of different fortune-telling traditions include this card-a-day practice.
It’s a daily excuse to ground yourself and meditate for a few minutes, maybe adding in any other ritual embellishments you like, before you even start. I have quite a few friends who will draw a single card without asking for anything specific and use the card as a theme for the day. Other friends ask the card to give them advice for the day ahead. You could spend a few minutes meditating on this in a quiet space, at an altar, or over your daily cup of tea or coffee. This technique, at its essence, provides a helpful moment to take a few deep breaths and set an intention for the day ahead, giving you focus, and perhaps a sense of purpose or confidence.
Practice loving detachment.
Grandma insists that to read from yourself, you must be detached from the outcome, because wishing for a certain outcome is what skews your readings and the way you see the world, yourself, and those around you. Practicing loving detachment is what Buddhists recommend we do to get through life’s trials and tribulations and maintain a relaxed and blissful composure.
This is why it’s not always a great idea to get a reading when you’re in the throes of passion or despair. If you want to read for each other, but you’re feeling like you’re falling to pieces, maybe take a walk first, talk, do some breathing exercises together or a calming activity like coloring to bring your energy down to a more neutral place. If you’re still really upset, maybe save the question about that topic for another day. It’s likely that coming at the heart of the matter from a different direction will be helpful, anyway.
Start a dream journal.
Journaling is such a helpful tool for many people, and dreams, for Roma and other cultures, are taken very seriously and are often seen as another reality or world connected to this one. Part of my training with my grandmother was dream analysis. We would often check in with each other’s dreaming and discuss what knowledge our own spirits, ancestors, and deities were trying to share with us.
You can start interpreting your dreams the same way you would the cards, by focusing on feelings, sensory stimuli, symbols, and narrative, which creates a direct line for self-analysis. Part of your well-being get-togethers might be sharing dreams with each other and discussing what they might represent and how they relate to your readings. Your friend will likely spot patterns in both if they’ve been reading you for a while already. This is a lovely way to connect your waking and dreaming worlds and share that everyday magic with someone you care about.
Prepare a closing ritual.
It’s a good idea to have a little closing ritual just to tie everything up at the end, and let your mind and body know that you’re returning to the world and leaving this heightened state of intuition and reflection. This can be simple. My grandmother and I, after thanking each other, would then thank the cards, shuffle them gently to “shake off” the reading, wrap them up in their scarves, and store them safely.
I also like smudging the room by burning some sage, palo santo, or incense. If you are burning out candles that you set with an intention, before you blow them out, you can say this incantation I learned from a Pagan coven I studied with years ago: “Though the flame goes away, the magic does stay.”
The most important thing is to begin, sustain, and close the reading with an open, honest, and compassionate heart. Dedicate yourself to creating a safe and nonjudgmental space, listening deeply to each other, following your intuition, and using the tools (the cards and guidebook) with the best intention to each other know yourselves better and pursue your own happiness. Your reading ritual can become a part of your bond and is a wonderful way to strengthen your relationship and support each other.
If you would like to learn the general meanings and history behind each card, with interpretations from a number of decks, as well as spreads and techniques, then you can try Rachel Pollack’s Tarot Wisdom: Spiritual Teachings and Deeper Meanings by Rachel Pollack.
If you love history, then you might enjoy A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult and Tarot by Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett.
If you want to learn more about dream interpretation, you can check out this keystone text, The Undiscovered Self: With Symbols and the Interpretation of Dreamsby Carl Jung.
If you love learning about symbols and mythology, as well as ancient magical practices, then peruse Alchemy and Mysticism by Alexander Roob.
If you’re a creative type, or wish to be, and you want to get into journaling and other intuitive practices to support your work, then I recommend The Artist’s Way Workbook by Julia Cameron.
If you’re curious about Romani culture, then you can read We Are the Romani People by Ian Hancock.