Annie Carmitchell’s memoir, “Conversations With My Sister: A Fool’s Journey Through the Tarot,” is a hard book to define — and that’s a good thing. It contains the past, present and future. “Conversations” is part memoir, part humorous essay collection, part New Age self-improvement book and part buddy comedy, all contained within the framework of the tarot.
Carmitchell’s collection of humorous personal essays can also function as an introductory guide through all 78 cards in the tarot deck. Each section begins with a short description of a tarot card followed by a dialog between the Carmitchell sisters, Annie and Bobbie, or a loosely related anecdote from Carmitchell’s life.
The Carmitchell sisters will be familiar to many Lancastrians as the duo has been gigging with their act on the local music scene for decades. Lancaster landmarks feature heavily in the book. Carmitchell writes about growing up with her family in Washington Boro, teaching eighth- grade English at Cocalico Middle School and even seemingly trivial matters like trips to John Herr’s Village Market in Millersville.
The book is also a funny, philosophical dialog between Annie (a spiritual explorer and tarot enthusiast) and her sister Bobbi (a freewheeling singer-songwriter, “Star Trek” fan and tarot tyro) about love, life and death. Annie functions as a guide through the tarot cards and their possible interpretations, but often her younger sister has intuitive insights that open Annie’s eyes to other methods of living and going with the flow.
“Conversations” is Carmitchell’s first book (it was published, appropriately, on April 1, April Fools’ Day). She had written mostly humorous essays, funny Facebook posts or song parodies for the Carmitchell sisters’ musical act, but she’d always wanted to write a book. After retiring from teaching, she found she had some time to write. In order to gain some insight, she consulted the tarot.
“I got out my deck of tarot cards and was like, ‘OK, I have time now and I really need to start figuring out how I can get a book written and put all these stories together,’ ” Carmitchell says. “I just started shuffling and The Fool popped out. The Fool is the first card in the Major Arcana, and it’s all about a young, naive man who is starting a journey. He doesn’t know where it’s going to take him, but everything he needs is inherently in him. I thought, ‘How about a story for each card in the tarot deck?’ ”
The use of the tarot itself is open to many different interpretations. Some associate it with satanic seances or viewing future events, but Carmitchell’s method is to look at the symbolic images on each card and use those images to intuit ways to deal with spiritual questions or problems she faces. For instance, some people might panic if they pull a card such as The Hanged Man, with its image of a man hanging upside on a wooden cross. But Carmitchell says the card is really inviting you to look at life from a different perspective.
“Some people will say that the cards are so general that they can apply to anything, and there may be a lot of truth in that,” Carmitchell says. “But if you get something good out of that, what does it matter?”
Some people might brush off tarot cards as New Age nonsense, but some major thinkers have been inspired by the tarot — which deals heavily in myths and archetypes.
“I learned that Carl Jung was a huge fan of the tarot, and so was Joseph Campbell,” Carmitchell says.
“Conversations” is divided into two main sections. The Major Arcana deals with the first 22 cards in the deck and follows The Fool’s journey as he encounters various tarot characters such as The Lovers, The Devil, The Magician and others. Each of these cards provokes a conversation, usually in the form of phone call, between the Carmitchell sisters. They begin by talking about their thoughts regarding a specific card introduced by Annie and almost immediately veer off into jokes, memories and other personal revelations. The second half of the book deals with the Minor Arcana — the remaining 56 cards, which are divided into four suits, wands, cups, swords and pentacles, and features more essays about Carmitchell’s life.
“Conversations” is also a loving ode to the Carmitchell clan. By the end of the book you feel as though you’re a close family friend. You’ve been with the sisters as they’ve grown up and gotten into mild mischief, you’ve heard motherly advice from the wise Empress Charlotte Carmitchell and laughed at dad jokes from the handy Emperor Bob Carmitchell. You’ve been through heartbreak, loss and death. The chapters that deal with the death of Carmitchell’s parents are especially poignant, and here Carmitchell’s sense of the spiritual really shines.
Death hovers over the entire narrative. Carmitchell’s insomniac dwellings on death keep her awake and pondering what’s out there for all of us. A ghost haunts her house. A close friend passes away. But balancing out Carmitchell’s experiences and esoteric inquiries into the afterlife is her undeniable homespun humor.
“The Death card doesn’t mean you’re going to die,” Carmitchell says. “It just means that something in your life has to come to an end so there can be a rebirth and you’re growing.”
And as she writes in her book, the Death card simply asks you to stop and surrender, “even to a bag of chips and some ice cream.”