An excerpt from Sidewalk Oracles: Playing with Signs, Symbols and Synchronicity in Everyday Life
There are two basic ways to approach oracles. The first way requires you to set a theme or pose a question for the oracle. In ancient times, this often involved lengthy preparation and significant cost — ritual purification, animal sacrifice, payoffs to priests.
Today, you might go to a medium or a tarot reader. You might consult a preferred divination system you have learned yourself, casting runes, or coins for I Ching, or using tarot cards or cards from another oracle deck. You might do some book-dipping, opening a book at random and seeing what is in the text that is in front of you. You might take your question to your dreams by setting a theme for dream incubation. You might take your question to the world by agreeing with yourself that whatever pops up into your field of perception in a certain period of time will be a response from the oracle of the world to whatever is on your mind.
The second way is to let the world set a theme or pose a question to you. All this requires is being ready to receive, and allowing enough space in your mind and in the physical structure of your day, to notice what the world is giving you. The oracle may speak to you in the voice of a bird or a backfiring car or words overheard from a stranger. It may give you an image in the logo on a delivery truck or the pattern of clouds or the currents in water. It may appeal to your sense of smell, giving you a breath of perfume that connects you to a person at a distance, or a rank odor that tells you that something is rotten.
In unsought, spontaneous ways, the oracle of the world may jab a message at you by giving you a repeated symbol or situation, coming at you again and again like a recurring dream, until you realize that you must figure out what is going on and do something about it, since action as well as understanding is required.
You can play sidewalk tarot either way, by approaching the world with your theme or by letting the world suggest a theme to you. I started using the phrase “sidewalk tarot” after I noticed that things keep literally popping up, like tarot cards, on the streets and sidewalks of the small city where I live. Sometimes these pop-ups are actual cards, playing cards or business cards or cards from a children’s game. Sometimes they are chalk drawings, in the hand of a child or members of a late-night college kids’ stoop party. They may be abandoned books, left on the steps of a row house for anyone to take.
Trash collection days are especially rich for pop-ups of this kind. A symbol or message may be presented by the logo on a truck or the letters on a novelty license plate or a poster that has blossomed in the window of the corner florist.
In fact, anything that enters your field of perception, through any of your senses, within your chosen time frame may count as a card in play, even as one of the greater trumps.
I played the drive-by version of sidewalk tarot on a day when I needed guidance on how to help a friend who seemed to me in danger of making some terrible mistakes because she was gripped by fear in relation to current challenges. I decided that I would receive the first unusual or striking thing that entered my field of perception during a drive to a meeting, as a response from the world to my question, “How can I help my friend?”
On a back road in green Vermont, I noticed a sign in front of a little white country church. The sign read, “Courage is fear conquered by love.” That was exactly the message my friend needed. In passing it on to her, I was able to open a deep and affirming conversation. Actually, the sign on that church is a message for all of us, every day. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is fear conquered by something stronger. Call it love.
A medical researcher I know plays the straphanger’s version of sidewalk tarot on her commutes on the New York City subway. One morning, rocking between tight-packed fellow commuters in a subway car, she noticed the text of a poem on a poster that appeared on the wall:
they advised me
to use the long spoon
if I went to dine with the devil.
on those rare occasions
the only one available
The lines are from a poem titled “Precautions” by Eugenio Montale. The poster was part of a sponsored series titled Poetry in Motion.
The poem in the subway car gave a shiverish start to my friend’s day. “I felt like the Devil card from the tarot was in play,” she told me. In the course of the day, she had many experiences that made her wish for a long spoon. She felt that some of her work was stolen without attribution. She felt put down by her boss. She found herself thinking of the picture of the Devil in the old Rider-Waite tarot, where the chains that are holding humans hang lightly, hinting that they have choice; they do not have to remain in thrall to an oppressive situation or perhaps an addiction. They are only captive because they have told themselves they have no choice.
These reflections led the researcher to take a good hard look at the assumptions that were keeping her in what she felt was a toxic job situation. At the top of the list, not surprisingly, was the notion that she needed the money and would not be able to match her paycheck anywhere else. So she stayed at the meal table with a spoon that was too short until she was “let go,” as they say, in a notably callous way, a year later.
The poem in the subway car is an example of how the world deals us cards of its own design that — like tarot cards — can be used for both reflection and divination.