by Diane Wilkes
The Tarot School in New York City has an excellent reputation. That reputation is completely due to its founders and teachers Ruth Ann and Wald Amberstone. You can take classes from The Tarot School even if you don't live in New York City. John Gilbert thinks rather highly of their correspondence course, and says, "[It] should be on the required reading list of all professional tarot readers." High praise, indeed.
I met Ruth Ann and Wald in Chicago at the first International Tarot Society World Tarot Congress. I was struck by Wald's erudite and stimulatingly ascerbic approach to the tarot, as well as Ruth Ann's warmth and openness to meeting all tarot enthusiasts. I loved their interaction, and wanted, very much, to attend one of the Tarot School's Monday night classes. I think you can get a good sense of who they are and what they both have to offer, as well as their different styles, in this interview.
Diane: What are your tarot backgrounds? How did you discover the tarot, and when did you come together to start The Tarot School? I know you started it in 1995, but did the school or your romance come first?
Wald: In a way, my connection with tarot began years before I picked up my first deck. My father was a game inventor, a philosopher and a mystic all rolled into one, even though, if he were alive now, he would probably deny all that. But I grew up equating games, symbols and truth. I actually cut my teeth on a symbolic deck of cards created by my father and this was my first real introduction to a description of the universe in the form of a game of symbols.
I was about 18 when I first came across a mention of tarot in some book whose title I can't remember now. I went out and hunted down a Marseilles deck, which was hard to find in those days. That was in 1959. There was, of course, the Little White Book, but that was about it. I started playing around with them, using techniques that I had learned with my father's deck and I've been doing that now for 40 years.
Ruth Ann: My introduction to tarot was not nearly so romantic. I was always interested in the mystical and magickal, but I had my real first immersion during college in the early '70s. My main fascination has always been in gaining psychological insights into myself and others. I considered focusing my energies in astrology, but a friend who gave me my first reading, suggested my intuitive talents would be more compatible with tarot. As soon as I started working with the cards, I knew it was the right choice. Not only do I respond much more to imagery and symbolism than charts and numbers, but because I'm a very tactile person, I just love handling the deck.
After my friend moved away, I was the only one I knew who worked with tarot. This was a good thing for me at the time because I didn't have anyone to compare myself to and therefore had the freedom to develop a strong personal style of reading. In the early days, my readings lasted a minimum of two hours! I have since learned how to give effective readings in much less time.
Wald: As far as my tarot background is concerned, I've been reading, experimenting and playing with tarot as long as I've known about it. I started teaching 27 years ago (about the time Ruth Ann picked up her first deck). Of course, at that time, my only connection with tarot tradition was a six-week course that I took with Rolla Nordic in 1974. I only found out later that she was a kind of tarot "royalty" in her own right.
Although my personal background aside from tarot includes a number of years of intimate acquaintanceship with Jewish Kabbalah and other Jewish studies, I had no idea, for many years, that this was an integral part of tarot. I made an "innocent" connection between biblical mysticism and tarot symbolism through my father's influence.
Ruth Ann: Wald and I met in the summer of 1994 and officially started The Tarot School on February 1, 1995 so you could say that both the school and our relationship have developed together. When we first met, we discovered that we had a lot of things in common, and one of them was tarot. The thing that was particularly unusual was that over the years, I had developed a special way of reading personality that turned out to be very similar to a method that Wald had developed, based upon his father's work. Since then, we have worked together to explore and expand on this method and we're still making new discoveries about it. To this day, neither of us have ever met anyone else who reads in this way — unless they've learned it from us.
Diane: I know a bit about The Tarot School, but I'd like to hear you describe your mission and your goals for the school for Celebrating the Tarot's readers.
Ruth Ann: From the beginning, The Tarot School was designed to be a place where people who had some tarot knowledge, whether they learned it from books or went to any number of short-term classes or workshops, would have a way to continue their studies on an ongoing basis. This isn't to say that we don't welcome beginners; we do. The Tarot School gives students the opportunity not only to deepen what they know and branch out into other areas of tarot study, but the chance to practice what they learn and to form friendships with each other. We have some people who have been attending our live classes for two-three years and our teleclass students, who come from all over the country, have formed a remarkably bonded group energy.
Wald: My goal is to keep The Tarot School fresh: to open the door for every student to every branch of tarot knowledge that I have access to myself; to produce ever more interesting and powerful tarot; and to go, as they say on Star Trek, where no one has gone before.
Diane: How does the correspondence course differ from your "live" classes? If someone lived in NYC, would you advise them to attend your school or take the correspondence course? Is one "quicker" to complete than the other?
Ruth Ann: All our programs have a slightly different approach. It's just about impossible to cover all the material in any one format and, although there's some overlap of information, the live classes, the correspondence course, the teleclasses, full-day intensives and Tarot Tips (our email newsletter) are all very different. In fact, most of our live class students are also enrolled in the correspondence course.
As far as which program we would advise as a starting place, it really depends on the student. There are three basic modes of learning: visual (reading), auditory (listening), and kinesthetic (doing). Your most comfortable mode of learning, where you live, the state of your health, your schedule and/or your budget are all factors to take into consideration. We try to accommodate everyone who has the desire to learn.
Wald: Every Tarot School program describes tarot from a different perspective, with very little overlap. The more approaches a student is willing and able to take, the more enjoyable and richer the experience of learning will be.
Diane: I noticed the course is designed around the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck. Could someone complete your course with a RWS-clone? If not, why not?
Wald: The course takes great pains and devotes considerable space to the symbolism of the visual imagery of the RWS deck. Doing the course without this deck would be a waste of good material. The second reason for using this deck with the course is that many of the exercises are specifically designed to be used with it. Even though all the exercises could be done with any deck, they are definitely best done with this one.
Diane: Besides your own material, are there any tarot books or classes you recommend for the tarot enthusiast? From which books have you learned most (be they specifically tarot books or other)?
Ruth Ann: I think that whenever you have an opportunity to take class with a teacher you should. Every teacher has something special to offer and the energy of a live class or teleclass is something you can't get from a book. Tarot events are fabulous for giving you the chance to study with many fine teachers and writers. Another great way to learn is with a mentor. You won't have the group energy of a class but you can study at your own pace. The American Tarot Association has an excellent mentor program.
Wald: I hesitate to talk about specific books. My suggestion is to read constantly — follow your nose, browse, consult bibliographies. What's good for one may be useless to another. What works for you now may be different from what you enjoyed before or will need later. Experiment.
Diane: Do you (each) have a favorite deck or decks...and, if so, what are they and why that particular deck?
Ruth Ann: Because we teach with it and know it so intimately, Wald and I both use the Universal Waite (UW) deck as our primary reading deck. I also love Jennifer Moore's Healing Tarot, which is a photographic interpretation of this deck. It's been magickally charged and I find it works really well for me. I sometimes use a second deck while reading and, depending upon the querent or the topic of the reading session, I'll choose an auxiliary deck to work with. The ones I use most frequently for this are the Daughters of the Moon, Osho Zen, Healing Tarot, or perhaps a non-tarot deck such as the Goddess Oracle. Mostly what I look for when choosing a second deck to use in a reading is one that has a very different energy and/or theme from the UW deck.
Wald: I use the Universal Waite deck, just that. I've spent so much time with it that nothing else can compete.
Diane: Your website is looking particularly spiffy lately. Who designs and maintains the site?
Ruth Ann: Thank you, I do.
Diane: How would you describe your teaching methods? Are they similar or different from one another?
Ruth Ann: They're pretty different and it's been a constant challenge for us!
Wald: We're always trying new things, experimenting. My function in class is talking head. Ruth Ann is the heart. Between us we keep our students happy.
Ruth Ann: Wald tends to get on a roll when he's teaching and sometimes he can get a little carried away. One of my jobs is to monitor the class and make sure everyone who wants to contribute gets a chance to do so. I also watch for emotional responses and physical comfort levels (such as if the air conditioner is up too high, etc.). Wald is great at talking and I'm more comfortable writing so I do a lot of my teaching through our newsletter, Tarot Tips.
Wald: It's funny, but if you just watched a class, you wouldn't necessary know how much Ruth Ann actually does. In fact, we once had a reporter do a story on us for a Japanese newspaper in which he referred to Ruth Ann as my assistant. She's still trying to get over that one.
Diane: What separates your course from other available classes?
Wald: I really don't know about anyone else. Probably two differences are length and level. We conceive of classes in the context of programs, and programs in the time-frame of years. I don't think anyone else does that, but I don't know. And there is no separation between beginner, intermediate and advanced students. Every class and every program, including the correspondence course, is designed to simultaneously serve the needs of every student. Both classes and the course are enjoyed by students from rank beginners to seasoned pros.
Diane: What do you believe tarot can — and can't — do?
Ruth Ann: It slices, it dices and it even juliennes! It's a floor wax and a dessert topping and dogs love 'em! (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) Actually, that's not so far from the truth — tarot is much more versatile and much more powerful than many people suspect. I would have to say that a high percentage of people come to tarot because they want to learn how to do predictive readings or obtain advice from the cards. That's actually only a portion of what we teach.
Wald: Tarot doesn't make coffee and you can't drive it to work. But it's great as a mirror, a doorway, a ladder and a window.
Diane: You're going to be offering an exciting tarot "festival" in 2002. Could you tell our readers about it — and why it's a festival, and not a conference?
Ruth Ann: We're very excited about the New York Tarot Festival! We have people coming from all over the world and it's going to be a lot of fun. It will be held over the Summer Solstice weekend, June 21 -23, 2002, which is a beautiful time of year in New York City. There will be about a dozen tarot experts and professionals presenting all-new material and all the seminars will be hands-on workshops as opposed to lectures.
Wald: Some tarot gatherings are called symposiums, some are called congresses, and some, conventions. We call ours a festival because our intention is to celebrate the first national tarot gathering in New York City! We want to have fun, to enjoy summer at its most beautiful in New York City among friends and colleagues, doing what we love best — tarot.
There'll be a night on the town in Manhattan; all-new tarot material and some new faces teaching and Ruth Ann are I are getting married!
Diane: Some readers might not know about your much-missed magazine, Arcanum. Could you talk about that a little bit—and why you stopped publishing it.
Ruth Ann: Arcanum was a labor of love and I'm touched that you miss it. Although the magazine included tarot content, it was more of a contemporary journal of occult writing and thought and included a whole range of magickal topics. We published it for a little over two years.
Brave people such as Geraldine Amaral (publisher of Celebrating the Tarot), Crystal Sage (publisher of Tapestry), and all the good people involved with the ATA Tarot Journal have an idea of the life-consuming effort it takes to put together a graphically intensive publication, cultivate a stable of writers, sell advertisting, deal with distributors and fulfill subscriptions. And we published Arcanum every two months!
As hard as it was to give up, there came a point where we had to decide whether we were going to devote our energies to developing new programs for The Tarot School or to keeping the magazine going. Eventually, I got the message in a meditation to drop it. This has definitely turned out to be for the best. We have been able to deepen and expand our work considerably and keep the focus exclusively on tarot.
Diane: You've been teaching classes for seven years—how would you describe the difference in the tarot community from when you started until now?
Wald: We didn't know anyone in the tarot community when we started. We didn't know there was a tarot community. Now we do. And so do a lot of people. In my opinion, that's the difference in a nutshell.
Ruth Ann: We're really looking forward to seeing how the community continues to grow over the next few decades. It's pretty exciting, actually!
It has been exciting watching the tarot community grow, in no small part due to the efforts of Ruth Ann and Wald Amberstone.
I always feel the true test of teachers is the opinion of the students they teach. Scheherazade Downey, who studies with Ruth Ann and Wald, has this to say about them:
"Wald and Ruth Ann use innovative and experiential methods to make the cards come to life. Wald approaches each card in ways that allow multiple levels of meaning to unfold. His methods satisfy the needs of beginning and advanced students alike. My experiences with The Tarot School have been phenomenal — each class opens new doors of perception that tantalize my thirst for knowledge and keeping me coming back for more."
Let's hope the doors of perception that Ruth Ann and Wald open for tarot students all over the world stay open for a long, long time.
This 2002 interview initially appeared in Geraldine Amaral's journal,