What’s behind the surprising resurgence of KC’s metaphysical community?

Emma Olson

Sometime in the last year or so, my friends all started turning into moon witches.

These were women in their late twenties and early thirties. Women with graduate degrees who vaccinated their children, who read more than just the headline, who could spell “teleological” and use it in a sentence. Most of them weren’t religious.

And yet they’d share zodiac memes on Instagram — #justscorpiothings — and tweet photos of their tarot card “pull of the day.” They Snapped me videos of giant blunts of sage burning in their homes.

I squinted at them with what I thought was curiosity but what was mostly “Me, An Intellectual” snobbishness. How, I asked myself, had so many smart women been hoodwinked by what was clearly, to quote the late, not-so-great Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, “pure applesauce”?

The answer was more complicated than I’d expected. It turns out, I had some applesauce ideas about women in the metaphysical community. Maybe you do, too. Walk with me.

•     •     •

Zach Bauman

The first stop on my quest for answers was the KC Metaphysical Fair, held in March — a bazaar for all things spiritual or countercultural or New Age. I dragged my friend Taylor with me for support. We were both skeptics, there on a lark.

There was plenty to lark about. A vendor selling a wide variety of wolf shirts. A healer promoting a technique called “quantum touch.” At a booth near the entrance, an attractive young woman was clutching a crystal skull in each hand, her eyes closed as if in a trance. I snuck a look at the program. The booth description said that a woman named Cindy could guide me to just the right skull for me. I made a mental note to watch the worst Indiana Jones movie again.

In the afternoon, we followed a clump of women into a workshop on “Starseed Angelic Soul Lineage.” It was led by an eloquent, sweet-voiced white woman in a Professor Quirrell turban. She mentioned the “dolphin people on Sirius B” with the casual air with which one might observe a beetle on a lampshade.

Taylor and I shared a long, silent, expressionless look. We were in over our heads.

When I talked to the fair’s organizers, Sylvia Martin and Gigi Woodman, they assured me we weren’t alone or unwelcome. They’re used to seeing skeptics — the fairs offer a way for newcomers to try out new ways of thinking without committing to an expensive reading or an intimidating private consultation.

They’ve also seen exponential growth in attendance since they started the fair in 2010. They now organize three fairs a year (the next one’s in July) and have nearly outgrown their expo space at the Abdallah Shrine Temple in Overland Park. Martin actually expressed some reservations about talking to me for this story, worried the publicity would attract more fairgoers than they could accommodate.

Woodman suspects the fair’s growth is due to both an influx of newcomers and the growing social acceptability of pursuits such as tarot and astrology. “There’s always been a fair amount of people who practice different spiritualities like this,” she notes. “But I think it’s more mainstream now. If you think about the past history of this stuff, persecution was kind of a big deal. You don’t call yourself a witch if you don’t want to die on a stake.”

Still, Woodman says, the fair has undeniably grown faster in the last year and a half. And Martin adds that the workshops in particular are suddenly drawing big crowds: “People are really wanting to learn more, not just buy stuff or get a reading.”

At the fair, I paid $50 for an astrological chart reading. The astrologer didn’t look like a moon witch; she looked like one of my mom’s friends. The process felt objective, clinical, like going to the doctor. She asked me my birthdate and time — I had to guess on the latter — and she plugged them into her laptop. Seconds later, I had a printout of my birth chart in hand. There were a lot of symbols I didn’t recognize. One I thought might have been carved into the forehead of a character on Stargate.

Julia Thompson, president of the Aquarian Organization of Astrologers in Kansas City, cites those quick computerized calculations as one reason for the new wave of interest in astrology — and she adds that the profession has seen a surge of interest among millennials in particular.

“The availability of astrology — the democratization of it, so to speak — makes it more accessible,” Thompson says. “When I first started studying in the ‘70s, one of the barriers to access was the math. In the days of yore, astrologers would spend hours calculating the astronomy before they could ever really take a serious look at the chart.” Now, computers can do those calculations almost instantly.

That explanation made some kind of sense, but it didn’t seem applicable to tarot or other popular metaphysical pursuits. So I did what I always do when I’m stumped: I called a librarian.

Stover has been studying tarot for 30 years. “We have all noticed a big uptick in people coming for readings since the current political administration,” she says.
Zach Bauman

Kaite Stover is the Director of Readers’ Services at the Kansas City Public Library and looks the part. She’s short but has a commanding presence, with soft red-gray hair, dark-framed glasses, and the wise, resonant voice of an NPR correspondent.

She’s also a dedicated tarot reader and deck collector who has been studying the cards for about 30 years. For the past 10 of those, Stover has worked with other practitioners reading tarot at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival. Tarot, she notes, has some universal appeal.

“I think when a lot of folks sit down and ask for a tarot reading, it’s the doorway they want to walk through for conversation with a stranger about the things that are troubling them most,” Stover says.

But Stover has seen an increasing number of young clients — she calls them “seekers” — at RenFest. The 2017 festival was the turning point.

“We have all noticed a big uptick in people coming for readings since the current political administration,” she says. “We have seen it. People are freaked out. It feels as though we’re living in a time when the world is extremely chaotic. I don’t know that the tarot can offer order, but the tarot can offer comfort and understanding and a new way of looking at the chaos and working through the chaos.”

The new stream of seekers has something else in common: they’re mostly young women. Stover isn’t a millennial herself; she lived through the crest of second-wave feminism in the ‘70s and sees some parallels with the newer, fourth wave. At a time when traditional (predominantly patriarchal) religious institutions are losing followers, alternative forms of spirituality and meaning-making are gaining ground. That’s not a coincidence.

“Some young women are looking for religions that empower women, that are female-centric,” she says. “Paganism is one of them. Tarot, mysticism, witchcraft — those are all female-centered spiritual pursuits.”

One of the many decks in Stover’s collection is the “Daughters of the Moon Tarot” — a round, oversized deck of cards with all-female illustrations. Some tarot decks have dark or disturbing imagery. But these cards are colorful, celebratory depictions of goddesses from different cultures.

This vibe seems to be resonating with millennial women. Elaina Smith, a 30-year-old romance writer, was raised in a fairly devout Protestant-Christian home. She no longer attends church. But over the past couple of years, she’s started reading oracle cards (a system similar to tarot, but more beginner-friendly) and attending workshops led by spiritual guides. There’s a direct line, she suspects, between her religious upbringing and her new interests.

“I see this as a version of spirituality that isn’t so much what I’m not allowed to do, but what I’m capable of,” Smith says. “Every time I’ve gone to church, I felt like I should be meeker, less ambitious, less of me as a woman who didn’t want to just get married, have babies, and never venture beyond my picket fence in some suburb of a Midwestern metro.”

Fewer rules, more options. Less order, more chaos — or, at least, more tools for navigating it. Different religions and mythologies from around the world have historically coded chaos as feminine (Jordan Peterson, hardly an icon of the feminist movement, has written about this, too). Maybe it’s only natural that young women have rejected rigid belief structures. Stover sums it up more succinctly: “There’s a reason it’s called ‘organized religion’. No one’s ever accused paganism of being organized.”

Broad statistics support Stover’s and Smith’s observations. The Pew Research Center notes that nearly 1 in 5 adults under age 30 have left the religion they were raised in. And millennials who are religious are less attached to their religion, attending services and praying less often than any other age group.

That doesn’t mean they’ve found the meaning of life. According to Pew, younger and older millennials are also at the bottom of the generational barrel when it comes to “feel[ing] a sense of spiritual peace and wellbeing.” That might explain why so many of them are looking for meaning in the stars or a deck of cards.

•     •     •

Before I started researching this story, I had a vague idea of tarot as some kind of divination device — like a more complicated Magic Eight Ball. Will he ask me out? Should I get bangs? That’s a reductive interpretation, but there’s a grain of truth to it. Tarot isn’t especially well-suited to superficial yes-or-no questions, but people do use cards to make predictions large and small.

Laura Pensar, a professional tarot reader and deck designer, says she’s lately observed a different mindset in tarot newcomers.

“I think the most exciting part of the recent resurgence is that people are starting to understand it as a contemplative tool and not fortune-telling so much,” Pensar says.

Pensar of Moth & Candle, a tarot shop and studio in Midtown.
Zach Bauman

Pensar operates Moth & Candle, a tarot shop and studio in Midtown. It’s a comfortable, approachable space, carpeted and accented in cool creams and whites. Pensar matches the room. When we meet, she’s wearing a cozy, oatmeal-colored sweater. She speaks in a calm voice, gentle but deliberate.

“For the most part, to me, fortune-telling in and of itself isn’t useful,” she says. As she sifts through a deck with graceful hands, I see a flash of a wrist tattoo: TRUE. KIND. NECESSARY. “’Will I find love, yes or no’…ehh. But: ‘How can I find love? How can I bring love into my life? What’s standing in my way, what are the obstacles?’ Those kinds of things are useful. Most situations are workable in some way or another, and the fortune-teller approach, the predictive and diagnostic, tends to shut that down for people.”

Think of the cards as less magic than mirror. Pensar works with clients to help them get perspective on a particular question or challenge. She isn’t there to tell clients What the Cards Mean. She’s there to help them parse what the cards could mean, to make stronger, more useful connections to their lives.

If that sounds a little like therapy to you, you’re not alone. Pensar never uses the word “therapy” in our interview, but nearly everyone else I spoke to talked about cards in similar terms: “it’s mini-therapy,” “it’s cheap therapy,” “it’s not therapy, but it’s like therapy.”

But the same aspects of alt-spirituality that make it appealing to those too broke for therapy and too woke for organized religion can also be vulnerabilities. While fortune-telling might not be the main draw as much these days, it is nevertheless intrinsically rooted in many metaphysical pursuits. And just as a bad weather forecast can leave us caught in the rain, a bad card or astrological “forecast” might spur us to make poor choices.

Thompson of the AOA recalls a young woman who was afraid to get married because an inept astrologer had told her that her first husband would die. Thompson was incensed. “Who would say that? Who would tell anyone that?“

The surge of newcomers comes with other dangers. Spotlight a countercultural movement for long enough, and someone will find a way to commodify it. Just as yoga has been co-opted by some into a spandex-and-smoothies lifestyle, magic and metaphysics have started to veer into aspirational Instagram territory.

Some of this was inevitable. Tarot cards are beautiful. Star charts are hypnotizing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A surface attraction can often turn into something more substantial. But there’s a line practitioners have to navigate between making the practice appealing to newcomers and turning it into just another form of white wellne$$.

“The spiritual community here, from what I’ve seen, is segregated,” says JDale, a black spiritual guide.

JDale doesn’t need tools like tarot cards or herbs or birth charts to read for her clients. She says she was born with the ability to see and receive messages from spirits — “anointed with the gifts to see into the spiritual realm,” as she puts it. But she worries about the superficial appeal of some of these tools and the potential for amateurs to turn them into props instead of pathways to healing. She laments the “commercialized, whitewashed, glossy finish” she increasingly sees seeping into her profession.

JDale, of The Healing Culture Company in the Crossroads. Zach Bauman

JDale is tall and slender and beautiful; when we meet, she’s wearing an elegant black head wrap with gold trim and a coordinating black outfit. I can’t help but think, somewhat cynically, that she could make a killing if she were to position herself as a lifestyle guru in the inauspicious vein of Goop.

But that’s the exact opposite of what she’s advocating for. JDale’s worked with vulnerable populations in the past. Before she devoted herself to her spiritual vocation full-time — this April, she launched The Healing Culture Company, at 2018 Main — she supervised two properties for a homeless program in San Diego. And she has serious concerns about spirituality becoming inaccessible to the people who need it most.

“Everyone doesn’t have Lululemon money,” JDale says. “Everyone doesn’t have the $500 or the $1,200 for a membership package or a yoga retreat. Healing is not a luxury. Healing should not be some kind of luxury. It’s a necessity. Everyone should have access to it.”

•     •     •

Zach Bauman

Tarot reader Jessica Dore isn’t local. She’s based in Philadelphia. But I wanted to talk to her because so many of my friends have retweeted her tarot interpretations onto my timeline over the past year. Dore is one of the more visible practitioners of the new wave: she has more than 59,000 Twitter followers and has built a successful business doing tarot readings and teaching workshops in tarot skills and fundamentals. When we speak, she’s frank about the limitations of her field.

“Tarot is an unregulated thing,” she says. “I think people who are drawn to tarot are people who tend to be interested in human psychology and behavior and interested in hearing people’s stories and doing deep emotional work. And that can be sort of an inclination to dig around in people’s personal lives, more than one might be qualified to do or prepared to do.”

But Dore, a graduate student in social work, also seems cognizant of the way new spiritualities have filled a hole left by a fractured health care system.

“There are so many people who don’t have access to the care that they need,” she says. “A tarot deck is 20 bucks, and I can connect with myself and do self-care and develop my intuition and learn about my mind, and maybe that’s the best I can do — maybe I can’t afford therapy, maybe I don’t have health insurance.”

There’s an aspect of all this that makes me uneasy. I’m a big proponent of therapy — the “sit on the couch and talk to someone with a license who’ll take your insurance” kind. And I recognize that’s a sort of luxury. Insurance is expensive. Therapy is expensive. But when readers of any kind substitute for licensed, trained medical professionals, they have the potential to do real damage. To hurt hurt people. Doubly so if they just picked up a deck last week.

Most of the practitioners I spoke to are already thinking about this. Pensar calls it “the danger of the overenthusiastic amateur.”

“When a person sits in front of you, even if they’re a total skeptic, they’re asking you to say what you see about them,” she says. “And that’s a vulnerable thing.”

But others are still catching up to a wave of new clients with a broad spectrum of experience levels and backgrounds. At the metaphysical fair, my friend Taylor sat down for a “stone reading” from a psychic medium who looked like Mary-Louise Parker. The woman began by calling Taylor “a breath of fresh air” after a morning spent reading for a lot of “people with trauma.” It had weighed her down, the psychic said, dealing with all that negative energy.

A brief note: less than a year ago, my friend Taylor was brutally beaten and raped by a stranger in a public bathroom.

“You know what they call me, Trauma-Free Taylor,” she joked on our way back to the car. She sounded pretty cheerful for a woman who had just paid $50 to be implicitly told her trauma was a burden to others. “At least I got some rocks.”

Stover tells me a story that makes me feel a little better. In March, she attended South by Southwest and a stranger asked her for a reading in a bar. People are always asking her to read in bars. It seemed like a typical reading — until the stranger stubbed out the cigarette he had been smoking, pushed his lighter and a nearly full pack across the table, and announced, “I quit.”

For her part, Stover’s skeptical. Is a tarot reading really enough to break a smoking habit? She’ll never know if the man quit for good, if his revelation held.

But I’m inclined to say it doesn’t matter. In a noisy, chaotic world full of brokenness and salves kept behind the glass, maybe a single moment of clarity is enough. That’s more than some of us ever get.

I think I’m done looking down at the moon witches — done parceling out selective scorn for female-centric modes of meaning-making while letting more traditional (and equally speculative) institutions slide without a second glance. I’d like to live in a world where everyone was as interested in seeing things from new perspectives as the women I talked to for this story.

“We all like to think this is how we help,” Stover says. “This is how I help.”

On Twitter: @lizcookkc.

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