The One Thing At A Goddamn Time Tarot Spread
1. Current Baseline: Where I stand now.
2. Current Demands: What most needs my time at the moment.
3. The Next Best Step: The next best use of my time and resources after that.
4. & After That: And a likely best step after that.
5. Strategies: Dropping Threads: How to gracefully table the projects I can’t tend to right now, with minimal unwanted consequences.
6. Strategies: Self-Forgiveness: How to forgive myself and carve space for rest when I can’t do everything.
Triage is a word with multiple meanings and grave roots—it’s not a term I use lightly. In military, medical, and disaster contexts, triage is the process of determining who receives care when there aren’t enough resources to treat every patient or move everyone from harm. This often means selecting who lives and who dies, based on probabilities of survival and quality of life. Triage is an ethical conundrum, especially for those with ties to disabled and under-resourced communities.
We also use the word triage more casually, metaphorically, for any process of prioritization when there is more that must be done than can be done, and when there are more serious needs than can be met in time. It’s not always a matter of life and death, but some degrees of urgency, sacrifice, difficult decision making, and uneasy or costly compromise are usually involved.
During a pandemic, (and rebellion and civil unrest), both meanings of the word triage activate en masse. Many people already struggle with both medical triage on the Covid and protest frontlines, and metaphorical triage in their personal lives. My heart goes out to everyone in that boat, especially medical and essential workers! Not everyone knows someone who’s gotten sick yet. More of us will experience illness, loss, and triage conditions in the months to come. Current events have already pushed many people beyond their known limits, and they will push more. This spread applies to the less severe, metaphorical meaning of triage in our personal lives, of course. Stricter guidelines and standards than a tarot reading need to apply to life or death cases!
Use this spread to help brainstorm and provide some comfort while confronting and ordering the demands before us under high stress conditions. In happier times, perhaps we could point it toward lower-key project planning. I do have a mellower spread for emotionally neutral prioritization here, so when you need a list-hack but don’t want to dwell on the heavy stuff, that one might be better. Spreads designed for sticky situations like to kick up sticky baggage, even when we aim to be lighthearted. This one covers self-forgiveness for good reason, and self-forgiveness is seldom easy or linear. As always, pace yourself as needed, and feel free to seek a second opinion or emotional support from counsellors or trusted friends as you navigate this topic. (Side note, especially for fellow white readers: self-forgiveness for not being able to do everything we crave does not mean merrily dodging responsibility or culpability. This spread is for better organizing our efforts, not self-soothing while skipping out on meaningful action!)
The needs of this world are technically finite, as this planet is a finite sphere and its inhabitants geographically confined, but the needs are legion, and so much greater than our itty-bitty selves. So many of the sensitive souls drawn to tarot possess a near bottomless capacity to feel feelings in response to those needs, and our individual time and resources will always dry up before the needs do. So we do what can, most of us taking on multiple projects, sometimes in accordance with our limits, and sometimes rushing headlong into burnout. (Burnout is not always chosen or avoidable, especially for those living with trauma, oppression, or extreme hardship.)
This spread suggests that, whenever possible, we tackle one goddamn thing at a time, though I do recognize that that is not possible in every moment. The capitalist workforce and triage situations both call for multitasking on the regular. When we try to do too many things in the moment, quality suffers, we make more mistakes, and we feel less engaged. Then again, crisis calls for imperfect action! Sometimes a bit of self-forgiveness is needed for the less-than-best labor and presence we muster within unavoidable multitasking. This spread is more for regrouping and strategizing within pause moments, and ordering our big-picture projects and the broad demands on our time, than for getting through every hour of the day with perfect focus on singular details.
This is a very strange phase for many of us, in that quarantine has slowed much of the workforce. That leaves many of us pausing and questioning our labor practices and routines. Meanwhile, the smorgasbord of health, economic, political, and social crises kick up more domestic and community work than many are accustomed to handling. We’re experiencing at once a necessary wave of critique and reimagining around our culture of productivity and busyness, and an unprecedented wave of busyness and shit-to-get-done in the domestic and survival spheres. This creates some turbulence and calls for reshuffling, between projects, cares, and each individual’s balance of action and rest.
The Focus-Fucking tarot spread addressed some of this too, and you may enjoy pairing these two spreads together. Let this one remind you to pace yourself. Let it help you to let some things go for now. (Dropped threads can be picked back up in time, even if they have to weave into a different pattern on the other side of the pause.) Let it remind you that you’re human. It’s okay that you can’t do all the everything. It’s expected that you can’t do everything you must do perfectly well.
PATRON ARCANUM: Temperance
Temperance falls between Death and The Devil. This can be read as the card of limbo, set in the marshlands along the banks of any river as bleeds into the Underworld. Its physically and psychologically androgynous water-bearer deals in balance, mediation, integration, recombination, and review.
To heal, to make, and to mend within and between ongoing traumas requires multiple modes of balance: the balance of weighing options and making discerning choices, the balance of cultivating logic and stillness while beset by chaos, the balance of compromising between extremes, the alchemical balance of sacrificing parts and offering resources to craft a new or necessary whole, and the balance of holding and integrating mixed sensations.
Consider a pond by a river’s edge. Temperance’s motions are those of sluggish fluid dynamics, as we can see in the lazy, swirling trails of mossy, acid green stuff melding into umber and gray waters, or feel in pulsing bands of warm currents pushing into cool ones over our knees and thighs in a mud and mica clouded, stream-fed swimming hole. Sometimes peace and calm feel somber and sober. Sometimes balance and integration look like crud and murk. Sometimes, this is utterly natural.
We are such ponds ourselves, in heart and spirit. Our perceptions, reactions, and anxieties make churning slow-cookers of our bellies, wherein emotions combine and recombine into a pulsing mass of nerve and feeling—sensor and sensation all entangled—palpable, unnamable, and at times overwhelming. Not all alchemical elixirs come out safe to behold or consume. Not all gifts of the marsh lie tepid and soft.
We can rest our eyes on the skeletal veins of a last-year’s leaf, whose fibrous, yellow cells long joined the soup and won’t ever be spied again, not even through a microscope. We could read a memento mori into those lacework remains, and we could also find them plain and undemandingly beautiful.
In Temperance’s reversal, we tease the parts back out from the whole. We trace the hair-like floss of acid green stuff melding into umber and gray waters, and we name the sticky threads of our disparate, knotted feelings. We shoot for that next-level trick of balance: the art of holding space for difference and integration, for balance and imbalance, for whole and part, for turmoil and calm, for grace and mistake, and for doing-our-best and doing-it-imperfect.
Logic and mood. Facing reality while holding space to have feelings about it. Cooling and soothing anxieties through rational planning. Balancing what is necessary, what is wanted, and what is possible.
First up, we’d better cover some variations I don’t recommend in this case. As I mentioned above, this spread is meant for prioritizing under high emotion or stress. Rather than adapting it to happier, calmer conditions, for a mellow and neutral prioritization spread, check out the old Pips & Post-Its trick from a few years ago.
Pips & Post-Its also works well for ordering any number (up to 78) of low-urgency tasks and projects. It will be tempting for some (myself included—no judgement here!) to keep adding cards for more tasks to a spread like One Thing At A Goddamn Time. What’s next after that, and after that, and after that, and after that??? I don’t recommend going down that rabbit hole when you’re already under stress. The whole point is to focus down onto a few, select, manageable things per session. Better to keep it simple for now, and then redraw the spread as needed week to week.
As usual, you can target this toward different areas of life. This one doesn’t need significant alteration to apply to career, relationships, creativity, or other topics. Specify what you’d like to look at through a signifier or a note in your journal before you shuffle and draw. Given the theme, this spread may be extra prone to skip over what you’d prefer to see, and cut to whatever matters most, so be aware that you might get interference from unspecified areas of life. Pay attention to jumpers. It can help to add a wildcard space to your reading to show something off your radar that needs your attention. “What should I be asking that I’m not,” or “what should I be looking at that I haven’t thought of?” Wildcards can help manage off-topic interference by granting space for it on the table alongside your topic of choice.
Add a bonus card of strategies for picking dropped threads back up when it’s time to restart a project or get back into a task you’ve had tabled for a while.
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