If Safety Were a Deck of Cards

I was thinking about some of my hippie friends who have an innate revulsion for all things bureaucratic (including those that relate to safety) and it occurred to me that there might be another way to frame this topic. Like, as a tarot deck.

I started playing with around with tarot cards when I was in high school. It turns out that knowing how to do tarot readings is a useful skill for a shy person. In college I would take my deck to parties, which meant I didn’t have to try to meet people, I didn’t have to make small talk, and I didn’t have to drink; people would come find me -- I was usually sitting in a corner -- and I’d give them a reading. I’d be occupied until it was time to leave. It worked great.

So I’ve had a variety of tarot decks ever since (if you’re not familiar with tarot, there are endless variations on the basic Rider-Waite-Smith deck), and my hands-down favorite is my current one, sadly out of print: the Slow Holler deck. It was created by a group of artists and writers, all of whom identify as queer, southern, or both. Instead of wands, swords, pentacles and cups, the suits are branches, knives, stones, and vessels. Instead of a page, a knight, a queen and a king for each suit, there’s a student, a traveller, an architect, and a visionary. (Having gender-neutral tarot cards is one of those things I never would’ve guessed I wanted until I had it; it makes the inside of my head relax.)

Recently I’d just finished a reading and put my deck away when I realized, this reminds me of safety.

Arguably everything reminds me of safety at this point. But please indulge me for a minute.

One of the main purposes of tarot cards is clarity. Not so much predicting the future as self-reflection, untying a knotted problem, getting some detachment so that you can better see how to proceed. That’s like thinking about safety. In a tarot reading, the future emerges out of the past and the present. That’s also like safety; we try to prepare for future situations by reflecting on past and present situations. What are the elements that have contributed to creating our current circumstances? Each suit reflects a theme or themes in our lives: wands are creativity and passion; swords are thought and communication; pentacles are work, material resources, physical “stuff” ; cups are emotions and relationships. (In a regular deck of cards, cups correspond to hearts, pentacles to diamonds, swords to spades, and wands to clubs.)

So if safety were a deck of cards, I think it would have four suits: organization, communication, boundaries and self-care. Any safety situation could be analyzed by asking what relationship each suit has to it. The human faces of the suits would be student, traveller (or maybe, explorer), architect, and visionary, representing roles we occupy at different times in relationship to those suits. (Right now, I think my favorite card would be student of boundaries.)

There’s definitely overlap among the suits. You could argue that communication is a subset of organization -- or vice versa. Communication is also a component of boundaries, because boundaries are maintained in part by communication. Boundaries are an aspect of self-care; self-care is needed in order to have the energy to maintain boundaries -- and also to participate in organization and communication. But organization, communication, boundaries, and self care -- in relationship to safety -- also feel distinct to me in the same way the suits of a tarot deck feel distinct. In each case, it’s worth asking: how do I relate to this particular suit? What are my attitudes and personal practices that pertain to it?

Organization and communication require people to work together, while boundaries and self-care are more individual. How will organization, communication, boundaries and self care show up in my work as an acupuncturist, whether I have coworkers or I’m a solo practitioner?

Using tarot cards is a way of relating to mystery. Making safety in community acupuncture requires tolerating uncertainty -- also limited, ambiguous, and changing information. That uncertainty encompasses everything from the process of navigating COVID public safety directives that are constantly evolving (and sometimes contradictory), to evaluating whether a patient is at risk of suicide, to managing a situation in which a person may have made a dramatically boundary-crossing comment which they swear they don’t remember (see: “I’ll kick your ass”). In these situations, it may be more useful to ask, “how can we move forward productively to make more safety for everyone?” than to try to nail down The Truth Of The Matter. Mystery and safety can co-exist, as long as you stay focused on the praxis of safety.

Similarly, safety isn’t about right and wrong -- that would be ethics or moral philosophy, which is different from safety. There are no heroes and villains in a tarot deck. Even the Devil card isn’t actually about evil. Safety is about holding things in right relationship to one another (see also: carrier bag theory).

And if the image of a deck of cards doesn’t appeal to you, maybe think of safety as being composed of four main building blocks. Imagining organization, communication, boundaries and self-care each as a block that’s used in the never-ending process of building safety is helpful because it reminds us that each requires focus, intention, energy -- in a word, work.

Organization, communication, boundaries and self-care don’t drop from the sky as a reward for passively following a set of rules. They’re not indicators of anybody’s worth as a human being. What they are is ongoing projects, both collective and personal.