The Figure in the Carpet

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Other than a pathological faith in jinxes and charms—fingers crossed, wood knocked—I’m mostly quite a rational, skeptical person. If there really were ghosts, why do they only appear at night, and only in closets, attics, basements, hallways, and bathroom mirrors—but never during daylight, on the bus, or at a department meeting or yoga studio? If angels could really guide us—wouldn’t they, of all supernatural beings, be ethically obligated to guide us all the time? If they have information that could help us, but hold out until we pay someone ($30 for one reading, special combo price of $45 for two)—wouldn’t that make them…demons? And raise troubling implications about free will? (questions that have kept philosophers employed for centuries). And if crystals and stones resonate with power, surely I’d have noticed by now and been transported to other places and times, preferably one where I’d have to marry the best looking, best educated, yet most sensitive warrior in order to save the whole rebel cause …oops—now I’m getting mixed up with the plot of Outlander. The point is, if tea leaves, or runes, or chicken bones, or gas venting from a fissure in the earth’s crust could really inform our behavior, surely we’d all be a lot better off than we are…?

I’d be delighted if there were really were magic in this world—the literal kind. How cool would that be! But instead, we’re all just Muggles, stuck with the figurative varieties of magic instead—the intersection of imagination, inspiration, insight, and instinct which allows us to make, and perceive patterns of meaning, in everything from painting to science to poetry.

Disappointed in my sorcerous and alchemical ambitions, as we all must be, I’ve come instead to deal with patterns (or the lack of them) for a living. I analyze words and the patterns we make out of them, I teach other people how to do the same, and I help them when the patterns fail. In this kind of work, we sometimes invoke the image of the palimpsest, or Henry James’ figure in the carpet, the pattern beneath the pattern, discernible, but only to the trained eye. As Poe’s detective Dupin and Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes know, you can be looking right at all the information you need, the vital clue can be hidden in plain sight—all you need to do is stop looking, and start seeing.

But as I said, sometimes the pattern fails, or something clouds your vision, and we sometimes need a little bit of help to clear the fog away. As these posts make abundantly clear (to me, at least), I experience a great deal of stress and frustration in my personal life because I’m often staring right at something important and am nevertheless unable to see it, usually because I’m hoping to see something else.

Which is why I’ve been curious about tarot cards for awhile. Of all the so-called divinatory practices, tarot is the least supernatural-seeming, the least occult. Many practitioners believe that their readings emerge not just from the cards as material objects, or as a set of symbols, but from the energies of both the reader and the one being read. The cards don’t make patterns, they reveal patterns unfolding in the universe on a metaphysical, perhaps mystical scale. I’m not sure how far my own belief—or suspension of disbelief—can go in that direction. But I’m attracted to the idea that the cards provide a symbolic framework within which we can create, or discern, patterns less cosmic, more personally relevant. This doesn’t have to be a scientifically-valid process, so much as an artistic one. This makes sense to me.

So I tried it out.

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New Orleans is one of those cities that, partly by accident, partly through self-conscious cultivation, has become a thoroughly gothic space. Buildings which are crumbling and decrepit and blank by day provide the environs for all manner of decadence and mystery (or the promise of it) by night. Part of the city’s allure comes from its long association with magic and ritual, voodoo most notoriously, but encompassing all things mystical. There are dozens of self-styled mystics, diviners, and psychics in the city, setting up shop to read your leaves, and runes, and cards, everywhere from the precincts of the cathedral on a Wednesday afternoon, to smack dab in the midst of the drunken brawl known as Bourbon Street. One recent Friday night, I noticed a young woman sitting at her card table while music blared from every storefront, frat boys staggered past sipping 200-proof slushies, and, alarmingly, a group of very inebriated women tottered along in high heels, balancing themselves on their toddlers’ strollers while the poor little creatures within clung, bewildered, to their sippy-cups. Perhaps the tarot reader could operate in that setting—the only one, seemingly, who could—but I figured the cards would wait until I could find something on the quieter side streets, and in the more reassuringly-sedate light of day.

My first attempt was in the most banal of settings—the brightly-lit convention floor of a large hotel, the kind where you can easily forget which city you’re in, the decor, unflattering lighting, and feel all designed to be completely, offensively-inoffensively generic. At a conference on pop culture, some of the academic experts on tarot (because if anything’s interesting, it’s worth studying academically) were doing one-card readings. Before directing me to pick my card, the reader asked me to envision my ideal day. This seemed a reassuringly non-mystical, therapeutic practice: knock off the fretting and planning and just remember what matters. I thought about being with loved ones. Immersing myself in nature—sunshine, warm water, breezes, birds singing. Dancing. I took a deep breath, and drew my card. And she said, “This card is about the pleasures of childhood, of simple, joyful playfulness.” As she spoke, I remembered standing in puddles, watching the water wash over my rain boots; then of letting my toes squish around in the muddy shore of the creek. I felt instantly happy—then promptly felt tears starting in my eyes, for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which was that I was overwhelmed with how uncanny it was to have those images and that card. Was she reading the card, or me? Was I somehow radiating some meaning that was inaccessible until the reading unlocked it? Were those images, and the merry contentment they evoked, with me all along? If so, why did I need a graduate student in a dress to shuffle some cards before I could see it?

I had to try more.

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New Orleans is the kind of place where the hotel concierge can recommend everything from the best beignet, to where you can get a seance. Sure enough, she had a recommendation for me, and a coupon.  I followed the directions on the slip of hotel note-paper to a shop in the French Quarter selling crystals, and offering a menu of mystical services. I declined the combo discount (tarot plus past-lives, palms, tea leaves, those suspiciously-mercenary angels, or runes), and was shown into a curtained area where a young woman (almost certainly another graduate student) in a floral dress was ready with her deck. We started with a general “spread,” then focused on relationships; she didn’t ask me anything about myself—work, personal life, ambitions, worries. My cards revealed…wait: is it bad luck to be too public with one’s readings? Or, does doing so create a kind of tarot placebo, of self-fulfilling prophecies…? I’ll tell you this much: the cards suggested that I was emotionally and psychically burned out in some areas of my life, consumed by negative energy—not my own, so much as that of other people, thanks very much. But she also saw lots of good things, lots of potential.

Then we did a spread for romance. She said, “These cards show a person who is charming, and fun to be with, but who is also demanding, who gets his way, who takes more than he gives.” She looked up with some concern. “Is this someone you’re currently seeing? Or someone you saw recently?” I said, “No, though you’re describing several of the people I’ve dated in the last four years.” She replied, “Perhaps that’s what we’re looking at, though the cards suggest something more current. If this isn’t a person in your recent past, it might describe someone you’re going to meet…?” I felt a bit of a chill: “I have a date two days from now,” I said. “Draw another card,” she prompted. She paused, then said, “This is the card for heartbreak.” I inhaled. “Is that meant to be a prediction?” “No,” she replied, “More of a warning: Your other cards show that your path is a good one, for some time to come; you’re content with your choices, with who you are; you’re content being alone if you need to be. Sometimes the universe just places an obstacle in our way as we’re on our journey—but if this person is an obstacle, he doesn’t need to be anything more than that.” I said, as much to myself as to her, “So. I must be vigilant….”

After the session, I drifted around the streets for awhile, absent-mindedly looking in shop windows, trying to make sense of what the reader had told me. I had been startled by how relevant everything had sounded. The cynical analysis would be that, like a good astrologer, she provides information generic enough to apply to anyone. But I think there’s more to it than that. For one thing, I think many, if not most, of the people who engage in these mystical practices believe, to one degree or another, in what they’re doing. There might not be much magic, but I don’t think there’s much deliberate deception either. We’re all drawn to divination for the same reasons—we want to believe our lives have structure and sense, and that the events which befall are us are something more than arbitrary.

More importantly, what I felt, as I drew my cards, was that I wasn’t being read, as either a mark, or as a passive text. Instead, I had felt engaged in a creative process that allowed for both of us to be simultaneously reader and writer. The cards provide the materials—the units of meaning—from which the tarot reader knows how to assemble a text, like a poem or a painting; then I bring my own experiences, interests, needs to bear in my response, creating an interpretation that adds to my sense of where I am at the given moment. In this particular experiment, at this moment, the process of collaboratively analyzing symbols felt very familiar; and, very interestingly, it  prompted me to think through a few things in a new way. I felt I’d been nudged along in my perception, like someone had gently held me at my shoulders to turn me in the right direction, from looking right at the pattern to actually seeing it: not there, here. Ah-hah! I said out loud, in the middle of the French Quarter (occasioning no interest whatsoever): I’ve been looking everywhere for things that have been hidden in plain sight, right in front of me all along.

That night, a friend and I tried a fashionable restaurant in the French Quarter. By fashionable, I mean that we struggled to get a reservation, then as soon as we were seated, we were promptly ignored for 15 minutes until I accosted some other section’s waiter to fetch ours. More moments passed, when, on the brink of our overcoming all kinds of social conditioning and hunger to simply walk out, our man appeared. “Allrightallrightallright!” he announced, with Magic-Mike authenticity. “Sorry for that delay! I was in the back.”

He was welcoming, and eager to get us set up with drinks and food; he bustled off with our orders, headed to The Back, content that all was going as it ought. My friend was somewhat mollified by his hospitableness, but I wasn’t having it. I was suspicious of what had kept him in The Back for so long (Is The Back part of the restaurant? if so, what goes on there that held him up? Is The Back some kind of indeterminate existential state, as in, “sorry for the delay in getting my act together, but I was in The Back”…?). I felt like I’d met his type before. “In my experience, you need to be wary of men our age, who are friendly, wait tables for a living, and are obviously missing several teeth. None of the first three criteria are absolute, but any one of them in combination with the last: damning.”  We found the obviousness of this pronouncement hilarious and unsettling. Magic Mike proved me right, and failed to earn much of a tip.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting.

Two days later, back in Boston, I had the date I’d mentioned at the tarot reading. I went with some trepidation. On the one hand, the man is educated, knows how to make pastry, and is French. On the other hand, online, he’d been cagey about what he does for a living, except to say that he was embarking on a huge adventure, personally and professionally. In his messages he said that he hoped he wouldn’t scare me too much, and was confident that, if nothing else, I’d find his story interesting. After the tarot reading, I thought perhaps I just shouldn’t bother; but then, because of the reading, I had to, just to see.

And what do you know?: the French guy’s work visa (waiting tables) was about to run out, but that’s ok, because he’s confident that once he goes back to France (next week??) he’ll be able to get an entrepreneur visa which will allow him to come back to the US to start his pastry business, that he’s funding with his savings! It’s all fine! He has kids, and he sees them all the time, and is teaching them how to cook, but his ex-wife has sole custody because she’s in her 40s and she has figured out how to have a job with benefits and a green card! Everything is fine! It’s all so exciting!

“Have I scared you yet??” he asked, expectant.

What scares me, I thought, but didn’t say, was that for the second time in as many days, I’m having a perfectly good dinner thrown off by a man my age, who’s very friendly, waits tables for a living…and is obviously missing several teeth.

I thought of the tarot cards, and what the reader had suggested about obstacles. I thought about patterns, some more obvious than others—for example, my own pattern of trying to talk myself into liking every stray man who crosses my path for fear that I’ll never come across another, and consequently having my emotional energy drained and my time wasted. I thought of Sherlock Holmes: stop looking, P2, and see.

The Frenchman, proud of himself for ransoming his children’s college fund for an appallingly-harebrained scheme, was still talking. Then he said again, “Well, that’s my scary story. What about you, P2?”

I looked; I saw.

I thought a bit, and said, “You know what? there’s nothing scary about me at all…and I think that’s just fine.”

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