Women in Tarot: Valerie Sim, CTGM
by Bonnie Cehovet
This is a continuation in my series of articles on women in the Tarot world. I wanted to peek into the minds of those women who are making outstanding contributions to the field of Tarot, to honor their body of work, and to take a look at what they see for the future of Tarot.
I had the good fortune to meet Valerie Sim soon after she founded the Internet group Comparative Tarot. Valerie is a teacher, author, presenter and reviewer, founder and until recently, List Mom for the Comparative Tarot e-list. Needing to pursue her shamanic studies, Valerie recently passed ownership of Comparative Tarot on to friend and fellow Tarot teacher/author, Teresa Michelsen. Valerie was also the VP of Education, then later VP of Communication, for the American Tarot Association (ATA). During that time she served as editor for the ATA Quarterly and for the monthly ATA Tarot Reflections column. She is the author of the Little White Book (LWB) for Lo Scarabeo's Comparative Tarot deck, creator of the "Victoria's Chalice Spread" for the Victoria Regina Tarot, author of Tarot Outside The Box, author of "Giving From the Heart" (Llewellyn Tarot Reader, 2005), "The Celtic Heart Spread (Llewellyn Tarot Reader, 2006), "Tarot Outside the Box - Interactive Readings" and "Tarot Solitaire" (Llewellyn Tarot Reader, 2007). She has recently finished "Tarot Solitaire Part Two" for the Llewellyn Tarot Reader, 2008, and is at work on a second book, "Shamanic Tarot".
I was a member of the Comparative Tarot e-list for its first two years, and was very impressed with the quality of the list, and with its intent. Certainly its sister site at Comparative Tarot placed a great deal of information in the hands of Tarot aficionados who might otherwise never have been exposed to such diverse ideas. The environment was very supportive to all levels of Tarot student, and there was always something going on, something to become involved in!
At this point I am going to turn the podium over to Valerie, and see how she views her journey.
BC: Valerie, let's start at the beginning. How did the Tarot come into your life?
VS: Which time? The Tarot came into my life first when I was a young teen and my aunt gave me a deck of what she assumed to be playing cards. I knew they weren't "mere playing cards" the moment I held them in my hot little hands. I was initially both fascinated and repelled. I didn't know the meanings of the individual cards, but when I laid them out in a reading, I "got it," ... deeply. Having been "raised on" fundamentalism, I got spooked and threw them out.
When I was 21, I was re-introduced to the Tarot by a neighbor, and was now more willing to work with them. Ironically, my initial ability to read 100% intuitively was gone. Snooze and lose? Anyway, I had to learn to read at that point, although I admit I had a facility for the cards that made my studies a joy, and launched me on a path I have never regretted.
BC: Following up on that, how did the concept of Comparative Tarot come into your Tarot studies?
VS: That was more than a decade later. I had been reading and teaching for years, and had collected a small handful of Tarot decks. I was teaching a class on beginning Tarot and I had an otherwise great student who just couldn't quite get the meaning of one of the cards. I tried explaining the card from many different angles and it was still a no go. Suddenly, it occurred to me to show him the same card from several different decks to see if the combined message might make the meaning clearer. I grabbed a couple of decks, laid out the corresponding card next to the one from the RWS deck we used in class, and I saw the light bulb go on. It was a Eureka moment for both of us. After that, I purposely worked with, read with, and taught with what I named, and later popularized as, the Comparative Tarot Method (CT Method.)
BC: What made you decide to found an e-group devoted to the Comparative Tarot method?
VS: This is explained in detail in my book Tarot Outside the Box, but I will try and summarize here. When I belatedly discovered the Internet in the late 90s I had been working with Tarot and the CT Method for almost two decades. I knew it worked, but was awestruck to find myself on lists with Tarot greats like Mary Greer and Rachel Pollack. For years I read avidly, but said nothing. I just lurked. I wanted to share my ideas, but was afraid due to my own insecurities to say anything to a learned group I thought might think little of my private studies.
One day, I was getting dressed for work and as I yawned and pondered the age-old question of what to wear to work, I had the half-conscious thought that if I got some kind of sign that I should do so, I would commit myself to introducing my ideas to the Tarot world on the Internet. It wasn't a challenge or even a prayer. It was just a somewhat random thought before coffee early on a work day… Imagine my surprise when I opened my front door and found a perfect brilliant Magpie tail feather on my front porch. Those like me that are into shamanism or animal divination will understand why I honored this as a "thumbs up" from the Universe. Magpie, in many cultures across the globe, represents divination. I even laughed at the time, realizing that my half-consciously iterated bluff had been called.
When I came home from work that night, the Comparative Tarot elist was born. To my delight, and even more to my surprise, the list was instantly popular. And being the crusader that I am, once I realized that my ideas were being well received, I basically took on another full time job: that of List Mom for CT. Every waking non-work hour went into that list. When I wasn't working or sleeping (and I don't need much sleep), I was online. I lovingly worked that "job" for two and a half years, personally welcoming new people from all walks of life and spiritual pursuits, presenting new ideas, and in turn leaning from the marvelous people on the list. When I started presenting publicly, and especially after I began writing quite a bit, I started to ease away from the list. This wouldn't have been possible were it not for some fantastic friendships I had formed online, and cherish to this day.
Diane Wilkes is the friend I am most grateful for. She covered my booty when I had to be offlist for months at a time while I was writing. And she managed to do this even when she was picking up the mantle for the Art of Tarot website, which she lovingly grew into the phenomenal website we now know as Tarot Passages. She was sole Moderator for many months in my absence, and then as I phased in and out, and the list grew and grew, we added other people as moderators, including Sally Anne Stephen, Janet Selman, Debbie Lake, and the late, and very much-missed, Brigit Horner, who passed away early this year.
BC: The Comparative Tarot e-group was a wonderful place for me to stop and learn on my Tarot path, and I am sure that it has been for many others. A place to meet and greet, with freshly baked cookies always available at the back of the room. Can you tell us a little bit about the evolution of this group?
VS: Hey, Bonnie, the CT Method and many of the other ideas we discussed onlist were my brain children, but those yummy cookies were all yours! It was great the way you helped me and the other moderators to welcome newbies with Tarot talk and your cyber cookies. Your many contributions to the list were much appreciated.
As far as the list's evolution goes, the list was dedicated initially almost entirely to a discussion of the CT Method and how that can be used in study, reading and teaching. Once I had gotten over my initial reservations about forming the list, I had given it 150% and reached out personally to all the Tarot people for whom I could find addresses. I heartily admit I was friendly, but absolutely brazen. I was surprised and delighted as more and more Tarot authors, artists, teachers and reviewers accepted my invitation and joined CT. Suddenly, we had a microcosm of some of the best Tarot brains in the world. I decided we needed to expand to maximize on the gifts of that learned audience.
This was when I introduced the CT "sub-topics." Via the sub-topics, we could discuss almost any Tarot topic in depth, allowing readers to subjectively read only those topics that interested them, searching them out and replying to them by means of the coded subject line. There was an initial chafing at the "structure" necessary to do this, but once people got beyond that, the list blossomed a second time with great Tarot discussions of all types. To this day, the sub-topics range from Tarot history to Tarot poetry, from Tarot spreads to Tarot magic(k), and include many disparate topics that newcomers and old-timers on the list enjoy pursuing.
BC: You recently found your path moving away from intense Internet activity, and away from the Comparative Tarot e-group. I was very surprised at this, as I am sure were many people. What thoughts do you carry with you from the years that you were List Mom, and what thoughts would you like to share with those still in the group?
VS: Many people were surprised by this, but most of my closest friends understood as they realize that I am part visionary and part hermit. I am an idea person. I love creating the spark, and watching it catch the flame, I'm even pretty good at fanning that flame… but I am less good at follow-through, because I am usually moving on to the next spark. Ego is not a big thing with me, so once I know the spark has caught and will thrive, I can move on. When Teresa Michelsen learned that we busy/exhausted CT Moderators were thinking of closing the list rather than leaving it unsupervised, she expressed interest in taking over the reins. We agreed unanimously that no one would be a better choice as the new List Mom of CT. I don't stop in often, but when I do I am delighted to see what a great job Teresa is doing in moving CT forward, and in maintaining a safe haven for people of all viewpoints and backgrounds.
Also, I am thoroughly committed to a shamanic path that frequently pulls me offline for months at a time. I do a lot of work with terminally ill people, their families, and with others who have a hard time coping with death. The American society does not handle death well. There is a lot of fear and pain that can be alleviated by people like me who are willing to fill the breach. I am no Dr. Kevorkian: I don't facilitate death... but I do help those dying and those left behind to accept death as part of the natural process we are born into and can not avoid. This takes a lot of my time and energy.
I live out in a fairly remote area of the California foothills, and the more I walk with nature, the more I learn. As I have pulled away from online teaching I have come full circle in many ways, and once again I have more face-to-face students, than online ones. I guess you could say that I have less time for an online presence now that I spend more time as both teacher… and student… The Earth and all of its creatures nourish me, and the more I honor them, the more I learn.
BC: You played a very important role for the ATA in filling the position of VP of Education. What are your thoughts about your time spent with the ATA? What do you see as future focus for the ATA?
VS: Wow... I could write a book on this alone! Without dredging up a lot of painful history, let it suffice to say that the ATA had a huge crisis a couple of years ago, before during and after the "Open Letter" period that made it look like the ATA might simply cease to exist. Many people were chatting on the Internet about not wanting this to happen, but few were willing to actually step forward to salvage the organization. When a couple of respected Tarot friends suggested to me that I be a part of the rescue mission by becoming a Board member, I trembled, but accepted.
We spent more hours weekly than most people do in part-time jobs, and did so every week for months trying to get the ATA back-on-track, trying to prove to people that the ATA could once again perform a service to the Tarot community, and could do so honestly without such things as misappropriated funds and/or fictitious Board members. I don't know if I would have "enlisted" had I known just how much work it was going to be! The ATA was virtually bankrupt, its reputation had been sullied, (especially by association with one individual), and we had an uphill battle to fight.
I think we were really starting to win the battle, but after almost a year on the Board Teresa Michelsen had to step down. I lasted almost eighteen months. Between the Board position itself, and the constant deadlines I was facing as editor of Tarot Reflections and the ATA Quarterly, I had gotten totally fried. I just couldn't do it anymore. I don't know how Sandra Thomson has managed to stick it out so long. She is one of the most dedicated people I know, and has my utmost admiration. She just couldn't/can't run the whole organization by herself. She watched some of us give into the strain and leave, and continued to work with others who were basically there in name only. Now she has informed her friends and co-workers that she will not continue on as President, and is hoping that elections will be more successful than they were a couple of years ago, when Sandra, Teresa and I sounded like an echo of comedian Henny Youngman in saying "take my job, please."
What people who have never done volunteer work for organizations on a budgetary shoestring don't realize is how hard it is to get others to volunteer to share the load. Lack of reliable volunteers is the number one cause of burn-out in the ATA and in other volunteer organizations. Historically, you get many who volunteer initially, who quit as soon as they realize that there is actual work involved. It's sad. It looks like some good people might be coming forward once again. I hope they do. I still believe in the ATA, and would love to see it succeed, especially since I put so much blood, sweat and tears into it earlier. Several good volunteers with a lot of commitment could make this organization what it could have been in the beginning and what I and others strove to make it.
Gosh, Bonnie, you asked for my vision and I seem to have climbed up on my soap-box. Sorry about that. Can you tell though long off the Board I still care?
Note: Having served on what ended up being a very interim Board for the ATA (the Board that served just after the fiasco and just before the Board that Valerie served on) I can say that everything Valerie talks about here hits home. There was a tremendous amount of work to do, more hours had to be put in than were almost humanly possible, and the more work we did, the more we realized needed to be done. Sandra Thomson's Board did a tremendous job in getting the ATA up and running, and keeping it that way. My wishes are right along with Valerie's - that quality volunteers step up and keep the ATA running at a quality level.
BC: You also found the time to write Tarot Outside the Box, devoted to the use of the Comparative Tarot method and other unique ways of working with the Tarot. What would you like people to take away from this book?
VS: I would like them to realize that the Tarot is not about a lot of rules and restrictions about what you can and can't do with the cards. Whatever ones goals with the cards are, there are many ways you can use them to bring meaning into your life. You can be immensely empowered, and you can empower others. And by relaxing and having fun with the cards, you will find you naturally and easily become a better reader. Obviously, a good portion of my book introduces the CT Method as a way to do this, but there is a lot more to the book, including using the cards to write both prose and poetry, using elemental dignities, asking good questions, etc.
BC: Valerie, you are known to be very involved with a path that is close to my heart - shamanism. Some time ago you wrote an excellent article reviewing specific Tarot decks with an eye to using them shamanistically. How do you see shamanism and the Tarot working together?
VS: I love both Tarot and shamanism, but even so I admit that they are not as natural a pairing as Tarot and Astrology, or Tarot and qabalah. I am one of only a few people I know who is totally passionate about both topics, and occasionally combines the two.
For someone actively on the shamanic path the cards can be used effectively as enrichment to shamanic work. I don't use the cards to "go" on a shamanic journey, but I often use them to amplify what I experienced in a journey. I don't use the cards while doing an extraction or a soul retrieval, but they can be a great aid in further illuminating either, whether for myself, or for a client. Basically, the cards provide a dialog that I couldn't live without after all these years. For me, it was natural to turn to them to bring new insight into what I learn as I progress in my shamanic work and studies.
On the other hand, for someone who is learning the cards yet knows little about shamanism, working with several core shamanic concepts via the Tarot can help them greatly expand their reading skills. And this is the focus of a book I am currently writing. I think even beginning readers can benefit from learning how to view cards via a shamanic lens, and how to use shamanic concepts for clarity.
BC: Where do you see the Tarot in your life at this time? Speaking for myself, I know that my focus has changed as I draw my Tarot activities closer to myself (but then, the Hermit and the Moon are my birth cards!).
VS: The Tarot is almost like a good friend that I know so well small talk isn't necessary. I don't have to work with the cards for hours every day to maintain my "relationship" to them. I go about the other aspects of my life, sometimes not consulting the Tarot for days, and then an idea occurs to me that makes me run and grab the cards. I can't imagine ever losing my passion for Tarot, and yet it is not the all-consuming sole focus to me that it has been in the past.
Recently, as you can see from some of the articles that I have written for the Tarot Readers, I have gotten excited about ways to use the fun of solitaire and the wisdom of the Tarot to do marvelously complex and rich readings. You may have heard the expression "a twenty year overnight success"? Well, this is my twenty year overnight inspiration. It is based on ideas that have percolated in the back of my mind for a long time, and it is just recently that it all came together for me. No promises, but here may be a book here somewhere, too.
BC: Valerie, this is your time. What would you like to say to our readers about the Tarot, and its place in their life?
VS: I am assuming that anyone who reads this is probably already hooked on Tarot. If they are not, I can only say: embrace it! This is a tool that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but given a chance, it can add depth, meaning, direction and confidence to your life. Remember: there are no rules! Get out of that box and have fun with the cards. They have many stories to tell.
I want to thank Valerie for taking the time to do this interview. Thanks to her hard work, the Comparative Tarot method has become well known and well used. Through her e-group, people met that would never have met anywhere else. Through the support of their fellow list members, many people were able to move forward creatively in ways that they never dreamed of. Her students have the honor of learning from someone who has a great love of life, and finds great joy in sharing. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for Valerie and the Tarot world!
© Bonnie Cehovet
Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer. Bonnie has served in various capacities with the American Tarot Association, is co-founder of the World Tarot Network, and Vice President (as well as Director of Certification) for the American Board For Tarot Certification. She has had articles appear in the 2004 and 2005 Llewellyn Tarot Reader.