The figure on the Seven of Swords is often read as deceptive or manipulative.
I’d like to complicate this interpretation by placing it within a very specific context: shoplifting.
It’s no news to sick, disabled, and poor folks that we are often chastised and scolded for having fun. Sometimes this feeling becomes internalized – we don’t allow ourselves to have fun in the midst of our survival, because we feel like we’re not allowed to or we worry that others will judge us. This happens in tangible ways, like not receiving financial support unless we’re live-tweeting despair and yet-another-crisis, and in intangible ways, like the guilt and shame we feel when we access something that might be viewed as frivolous or unnecessary. Whether it’s a service (spiritual or otherwise), an object (stolen or paid for) or a meal or a drink, if it’s not directly and literally saving our lives in the moment (and sometimes even if it is), it is misconstrued as trivial or wasteful, and we lose our status as real.
Sick, disabled, and poor people are often viewed in similar ways to these ‘unnecessary’ objects: wasteful, unimportant, and meaningless. We’re disposed of. Sometimes disabled folks even use and dispose of one another, once we are seen as imperfect, inadequate, or no longer a resource for extraction – in queer and anti-capitalist worlds, this often happens when political disagreements around moral purity or superiority take place. When one person sees themself as more pure, more good, more virtuous than the other, the other is left behind.
But all those words are just code for black-and-white thinking. And you know I’ve been trying to reject those patterns for a long time; before I had a BPD diagnosis and a language for my lack-of-gender to encourage me, and even before I recognized how much the tarot had/has to offer me on working with dualities and oppositions.
In Pixie’s Tarot, we see the familiar image of a figure carrying a bundle of swords, tiptoeing away as if they don’t want to be caught. When this card comes up, we often don’t want to admit when we’re the one sneaking off. We think we’re too good to be hiding something from someone, too cool to feel shame, too smart to participate in the power structures we’re trying to dismantle (as if we could simply decide to remove ourselves from those structures and live fully outside of them), and too kind and careful to hurt the people around us. That, or we feel invisible, unable to harm others because we don’t quite exist in this world. It’s one of the minor arcana that tends to be read as if it were a court card, a representation of somebody else in our environment, rather than us, up to no good.
Who is the figure in this card? What are they taking? Who are they hiding from? Who’s being harmed and how? Is their action necessary? Where are they going?
When we allow ourselves to acknowledge that the main figure might be us, it’s a pretty tricky form of discomfort to sit with. Then again, one synonym for tricky is artful. We’ve all got legit reasons for doing what we do to get through each day, and many of us have made an art-form of our own survival.
After my column on the Lovers was published, I received an email criticizing me for shoplifting with a friend – not just for the act, but for appearing to take pleasure in the act.
I’ve been writing about poverty for a long time, and the disappointment of the reader showed that they were likely unfamiliar with my body of work. They seemed especially upset that I was stealing clothes and cassettes, which they felt were items I wanted, not needed. I’m not sure how they came to that conclusion, and while I usually resist the temptation to attempt to justify the way I live to strangers, I did feel compelled to talk about how a) no, I actually can’t afford clothes, and this becomes a special problem not only when we’re between seasons and the weather is changing and unpredictable, but also when my clothes become threadbare and uncomfortable, and when my body changes, and as I struggle with my gender shit, and I can’t replace them except by theft. And b) the friend I was shoplifting with can’t get a job because she’s visibly trans in a transmisogynist world, and can’t apply for welfare or disability because she doesn’t have adequate IDs. She’s totally got permission to pocket a Stevie Knicks cassette from Salvation Army, a place with a history of homophobia and transphobia.
In Telegram #39, I wrote about how poor people are simultaneously criticized both for having too much fun, and for not having enough fun.
In the Next World Tarot, Cristy Road has written what’s thus far been my favourite description of the Seven of Swords:
After reading the instructions, she still believed she knew a better solution/ No one knows her struggle, no one knows the best solution to an obstacle that burns her/ The seven asks you to make compromises, but question which bridges are being burned/ She questioned her actions multiple times, and multiple times came to the same conclusion to do it her way/ Do the same, but be mindful.
Each card is printed with a key word and astrological notes at the bottom of the frame. Seven of Swords is labeled ESCAPE and MOON IN AQUARIUS. The figure in her re-imagining carries a purple totebag over her shoulder and wears black heels on a dangerous cobblestone path, striking a pose in an outfit reminiscent of the sun. She holds her head high, defiant, proud, and unashamed. Where might she be escaping from? The reader knows she’s gotten away with something, and that the effort was worth it. She looks good and she knows it.
In the background, signs on the roofs of tall, grey buildings read BUY and HATE YRSELF.
Which laws do we choose to follow and why? How do our race, gender, class, disabilities, and access to home and health care impact our risks in committing illegal acts? Which of those acts feels more like necessity than choice? Who do we feel responsible to when we remind ourselves to harm none? Are we able to imagine worlds where theft doesn’t feel or become necessary? What do our individual and collective anti-capitalist spiritual practices look like? How can we further reduce harm in how we stay alive?
As I connect this card to shoplifting and survival, I think also of fashion, style, and chosen aesthetics as a means of coping, of enduring, of staying afloat when we feel like we’re drowning. I think of the way shoplifting certain items gives us access to self-expression that we couldn’t otherwise afford and access to options for inhabiting our bodies in ways that feel more affirming, more creative. I think of the ways we can use fashion not only in the most ordinary, practical ways but also as an art and as a form of witchcraft.
I think of how, as queer outcasts, we need to keep reclaiming tarot as anti-capitalist and crip, keep exploring the necessity of spirituality grounded in anti-capitalism (and anti-capitalism grounded in spirituality?).
In What Is Art About Social Assistance?, I wrote about staying alive while crowdfunding rent and food when my social assistance was mistakenly cut off. I shared a quote from Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts In High School:
Poverty is bad for humans because it makes them perpetuate all that is oppressing them and good for humans because it helps them to be willing to do anything – the weirdest acts possible, suicidal – to stop the poverty.
And I asked, Is there such a thing as art about social assistance? By people on social assistance (whether it’s welfare or disability)?
This column is an example of that art.
The Seven of Swords – depending on the questions asked, who the querent is, and which other cards are turned up – could be more broadly about power and privilege, about white supremacy, about feelings of entitlement. It could represent endurance under severe constraints, and persistence and resistance too. It could represent the act of getting away with something, frowned upon or illegal or not. (I’d posit that the Five of Swords has a greater focus on damage done, and I’d like to explore that card in depth in a future post.)
In the Spolia Tarot, created by Jessa Crispin and Jen May, we’re offered a vision of a barefoot woman of the Victorian era looking to the left of the frame, her hair braided into a subtle crown. Although she carries her swords haphazardly and they appear deadly sharp, she grasps most of them by their handles, keeping herself safe. Like the traditional rendition of this card, she tiptoes, gentle and cautious. She lifts her skirt slightly to prevent tripping.
Perched upon her makeshift crown, beak wide open, is a crow, an animal who carries messages between material and spiritual realms. There’s more to see than what appears directly before us.
In the accompanying guidebook, Jessa Crispin writes, “The Sevens are all about desire. How do we express that desire, and what is it that we desire?” And in The New Tarot Handbook, Rachel Pollack writes of the Sevens, “Action, or maybe just the contemplation of action.
The Next World and Spolia are, I think, the first decks where I’ve seen the Seven of Swords re-imagined as women. In many ways, this changes the meaning of the card for me. Where greed is often a go-to word, I now think of survival, the joy of a good scam, and delight in participating in lineages and rituals of staying alive while being discarded, ignored, or shunned by much of the world around us – specifically, by those with power we do not have.
I’m reminded of a story my twin sister told me a few years ago: she was eating dinner with our grandparents, and they had linen napkins on the table for the first time ever. When she asked where they came from, our nana confessed that she’d stolen them from the dining room of a fancy hotel in the 1950s, and held onto them since then but kept them out of sight.
If I designed my own deck, a corner of my nana’s stolen napkin would be peeking from the pocket of this sneaky figure, signifying not only mischief, but a reminder that poor people are allowed to have nice things. Necessary or not, stolen or not.
Have you ever slipped an item into your pocket, then wondered if you should exit the space or put the item back? Have you practiced acting aloof, friendly, and unbothered in public as a form of hiding, of protection? Have you ever felt entitled to something you couldn’t afford?
The reader who criticized me for shoplifting also said they’ll no longer read LittleRedTarot, nor my own work, and that they’ll inform their friends and clients to do the same. Okay. Nobody’s obligated to read me. And it’s okay if we have different values. But when I talk about how quick queers are to ostracize one another (for example, in Poverty and Isolation Are Killing Us: (More, Unending) Thoughts and Conversations on Suicide, Criticism, Responsibility, Purpose, Care, and Love) and to demand their social circles do the same, this is what I mean.
This person was concerned that I was conforming to a stereotype of both crips and witches as cunning, deceptive, thieving. But I don’t mind being seen as a problem. I don’t mind being read as deceptive or being seen as a thief. I’m not interested in seeking acceptance by those who’d rather not have someone like me around. What I am interested in is giving permission for weirdos like us to live and to have fun, whether or not we are likeable, and certainly when we are inevitably impure.
How do we punish others for not being perfect? How do we punish ourselves? What do we do that makes us feel guilty? When do we feel we should feel guilty, but don’t? Who have I harmed and how do I feel about it? Is the harm I’m causing avoidable? Can it be lessened somehow?
On May Day, poet Anne Boyer tweeted an image of her handwritten poem, poem for laura:
the only possible
is to eat