Carolyn Kerns unwrapped her tarot card deck from several pieces of white linen.
There’s a tradition behind storing things that "are magical to contain and protect them,” she said.
Kerns is a Duluth witch and priestess, and the owner of Northwoods Witch, where she offers tarot readings, spiritual direction and potions. About 11 years ago, Kerns started identifying as a witch, which includes a comprehensive belief system. A "witch" is a healer who works with nature, plants and cycles of the universe. A "potion" is a magical tool made from plants, such as a salve or tea. And "magic" is the idea that humans have the capacity to manifest and shift things, a concept that can be taken tangibly. As Kerns explained it, we have engineers who imagine a car, it comes out of the brain and onto a piece of paper, and then it comes into the world.
Kerns grew up in Duluth and first started to question her religion when she was baptized before confirmation at a local church. She recalled feeling like professing her faith in that way was “untrue to her heart.” After that, her interest in faith was academic.
Studying world religions at Macalester College, she said there were places where academia ran into the mysteries of the universe, where research had to rely on the experiences of others. During her senior seminar, she realized she was seeking more from her studies, and that’s when she found paganism.
“People who come to paganism often say it’s not a religion of conversion; it’s a religion of discovery.” She said that rang true for her, recalling giving significance to twigs, berries and leaves at an early age and not knowing why. Also sneaking out at night to walk the beach near her Park Point home and experiencing “incredible feelings of love and longing.”
“If you're living in the moment and joy infuses you, that's a spiritual experience.”
To her, a pagan is somebody who identifies as having their own pathway to the divine, and hers involves thealogy (with an “a”) and working with goddesses, her own ancestors, and: “I give gratitude and honor to the lake; she’s a divine entity.”
Kerns thinks of spirit as a cosmic oneness, or the familiar “big-picture god.” But it can be so big that, for her, it’s hard to understand or connect with on a daily basis.
That’s where deities come into play. Those are the faces she puts on this source of power, the ones she feels she can interact with on a personal level.
Part of that has to do with identification. Kerns said she struggled with the idea that god is only male or masculine. “Where’s the divine feminine? Where’s the divine birth-givers … who looks like a woman, the one who looks like my body, that means that I can be divine? ... It should be there, too,” she said.
The entities and goddesses she works with are ones people have been seeking help from and giving gratitude to for a long time, she said.
Kerns’ introduction to witchcraft was led by Margot Adler’s “Drawing Down the Moon,” also her own reading about shamanism, angel guides, dreaming exercises and astral projection. She traveled to Peru, where she first heard the term “Earth as a goddess.”
Soon after, she went to the beach, made an altar and started identifying as a witch.
Attending seminary in California, she explored what that means and how to be a priestess, or a servant of the goddess, and how to do ministry-type work that’s not based in a church setting.
In her spiritual health business, Kerns wants to help heal people with plants and love. She often sees clients who feel stuck in some way, and many ask for guidance about their careers or about matters of the heart.
Kerns doesn’t deal in magic that changes circumstances outside of oneself. For instance, she doesn’t craft love potions, but she might make a salve or a drink to ready the heart to give and receive the kind of love a client is looking for.
Her main form of divination is tarot, a card deck that acts as “a pictorial language,” she said. Where you place the cards is the "grammar." Kerns said tarot helps identify places and patterns in our lives we’re seeking to change or continue. It shows us where we’re headed provided we make no changes, and it offers very clear instruction.
There are misconceptions that evil is connected to tarot, but she hasn’t run into that in her personal practice. And while there is a death card in the deck, it usually doesn’t mean actual death, but is pointing to an ending of some kind.
If you believe a creator shows itself in the world, then “tarot is god in pictures,” Kerns said; it’s a check-in with your deep self, a way to support people on their spiritual path.
Paige Wright of Duluth was always interested in getting a reading. She visited Kerns for the first time professionally about a year ago. "I really struggled with my own spirituality ... and reclaiming my own Jewish heritage because my grandma converted. My whole life, I wanted to know more, and I was very slowly exploring that side," Wright said.
During that first session, each question Wright had referred back to one card in particular, which she still says holds significance.
"The person was in the boat, and it was going over rough waters, but ahead, it was calm. In the back of the boat was a spirit guardian, and I somehow relate it to my grandma."
After that reading, Wright went back to school and earned master's degree, and this fall, she and her family are "frequent flyers" at Temple.
During a recent reading in her Park Point home, Kerns laid a Celtic cross tarot spread for Wright.
Kerns was several months pregnant, freckled, articulate. Wright was animated and eager to hear what’s next.
“It’s a rough spot, wanting this thing … this card says it doesn’t get worse than this,” Kerns said.
“I just want to buy a house,” added Wright.
Wright likes that the cards aren’t set in stone. She knows she can adjust something in herself and affect change. Her favorite part of the work is she gets to be a channel, and it’s “100-percent spirit guided, and the rest of it is humanity saying ‘yes,’” Kerns said.
Kerns is “a solitary seeker,” and her faith today is rooted in nature, sometimes journeying, and her daily prayer practice. “I don’t care what it is, find one and do it because it builds a core of inner strength. Spirituality is a muscle, like anything else,” she said.
Her spirituality has gotten her through the toughest parts of her life in terms of being able to trust that there’s cosmic love out there, even if that’s not what you’re experiencing in the moment.
And she sees this energy in everything.
“Joy and love and creativity are all super spiritual," she said. "If you’re living in the moment and joy infuses you, that’s a spiritual experience. If all of a sudden, you feel a tremendous wave of love, that’s spiritual — curiosity and wonder."
Samhain, Oct. 31-Nov.1, is the high-holiday end of the witchy year, when our ancestors are the closest, said Duluth witch and priestess Carolyn Kerns. She plans to take her children trick-or-treating, and there will likely be a fire in her backyard, which faces the lake. And some cauldron action.
Kerns took time to define some witchy terms. While every person who practices may have her or his own definition, here are hers.
Witch: a person who works with nature, plants, cycles of the universe and deep wisdom, and who uses those elements for healing.
Potion: magical tool made from plants, such as a tea, drink or salve.
Priestess: any gender who is a servant of the goddess.
Pagan: somebody who identifies as having their own pathway to the divine.
Magic: the idea that humans have the capacity to manifest and shift things.
If you go
What: CSS Oreck-Alpern interreligious forum: Goddess Traditions, facilitated by Carolyn Kerns
When: The last Monday of the month