There are a few reasons I don’t travel much. First of all, it’s expensive. Second, it’s a hassle; in most of my travels, I spend about as much time in transit as I do at the destination.
Finally, there’s the issue of a great many experiences being highly overrated. You’re supposed to visit a place because it’s a famous landmark, or order the signature dish at this “amazing” restaurant, or have this certain experience in this certain place because people go there from all over the world to do it.
But then you do the thing that was described as “life-changing,” and guess what? Your life doesn’t change.
Sadly, it didn’t take me 40 years on Earth to develop this attitude. I might have been born with it.
This week I went to New Orleans for what is called a writing marathon. Basically, a bunch of teachers (and a few other people who want to write), get together and walk around the city, sit and write for a bit, and then share what we’ve written. I’ve done this where I live in Winchester, Virginia, with other teachers I met through the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project, and we’ve done it in the high school English and creative writing classes I teach.
In addition to participating in the writing marathon, I wanted to see my dad, who lives in Mississippi, two hours from New Orleans, because I haven’t seen him in several years, and he hasn’t been feeling well at all recently. He has COPD and has to use oxygen, and he suffers chronic back pain.
I didn’t want to go to New Orleans by myself, so I asked my sister to go along. She hadn’t seen Dad in years either. I planned to do a couple of days with the teacher-writers, see New Orleans with my sister, and visit my Dad in Mississippi, all in four days. I knew I wasn’t really going to have enough time to get the most out of any of it, but figured I would do the best I could under time and budget constraints.
I will say New Orleans’ French Quarter is captivating. I had been there once when my father took me almost 30 years ago and I originally hoped he could join me on this trip, but he wasn’t up to it. Like New Orleans, Winchester, the city I live in, has a historic southern charm, but in Winchester you won’t find crowds of people partying on every street corner, eating, drinking, and listening to jazz music all night long.
My sister and I went out to take in the sights of New Orleans when we arrived on Sunday evening, and then again on Monday morning. We had cafe au lait and beignets at the famed Cafe du Monde and then shopped for souvenirs on Decatur Street.
That was when a random guy spit in my face.
Just out of nowhere, this guy passing me turned, spit on me, and kept walking down the street, looking angry. He never said a word.
By that point we had already seen several groups of people begging for money. I heard one ask, “Can you spare some money for whiskey?” We saw a guy passed out with his pants halfway down his legs, exposing his entire hairy backside, on the street corner in front of an expensive restaurant. We saw a woman, probably in her 20s or early 30s, wearing tattered denim shorts and a tiny half-shirt laying in the park at Jackson Square with her eyes closed, rocking back and forth and murmuring to herself.
So it was obvious there were some troubled people trying to survive among the throngs of swindlers and tourists everywhere. I guess the guy who spit on me had had about enough of us all.
It wouldn’t have bothered me so much if he hadn’t managed to get some of it in my eye.
Logically, I knew it wasn’t personal. It happened so fast, I’m not even sure it was premeditated. The guy could have been certifiably insane. But I do think it’s a lot less likely that it would have happened to me if I were a man.
I have often wondered aloud if I have a sign that says “doormat” on my forehead.
Sometimes people ask me for money on street corners in Winchester. Students at the school where I teach often ask me for bathroom passes, explaining that the teacher of their last class, or their next one, won’t let them go.
When I asked my friend Beth if I have “doormat” written all over me, she said, “No, you’re approachable.” But Beth is one of the most well-adjusted people I know. She can put a positive spin on almost anything. I see a doormat and she sees a welcome mat.
Anyway, I tried to put the spitting incident behind me, and my sister noticed a fortune teller’s sign for palm and tarot card readings. At first I didn’t think we should do it.
I’d been to three different psychics in my life. The first two had what I thought were some valid insights. The third was one I interviewed for a newspaper article, and I wasn’t sure anything she said applied specifically to me.
Mainly, I decided to try a psychic reading in New Orleans because I wanted something more substantial to write about than just my general observations of the city. One of the main objectives of the trip was writing, and I didn’t want to sum it up with the spitting incident or the fact that I saw a lot of tacky fashion statements in the French Quarter.
When we were kids, my sister often claimed to be psychic. It was kind of a game we played. She would tell me that she envisioned a certain thing happening. Quite often, inexplicably, her prediction came true. It got to the point that, when I had a question or problem, I’d say, “Susie, I need your psychics.” Usually, I’d want to ask her questions about a boy I liked.
Sometimes she would cooperate and other times she would tell me that her psychics weren’t working because she was too tired.
Lately, my sister hasn’t had much psychic inspiration. We’re both feeling the drag of mid-life that includes chronic pain and regrets. She’s still recovering from major back surgery last year, and I had a recent X-ray diagnosing a back problem that got me a referral for physical therapy.
So I decided I would give my next psychic a challenge: I would ask them to tell me something good. I wanted something to look forward to other than the inevitable losses, wrinkles, gray hair, pain and ailments that come with getting older.
Well, my psychic didn’t like my little challenge.
“If you’re going to try to control this process, it might not be the best idea for you,” said Geoff the psychic.
He was a tall and lanky 41-year-old with a red beard.
They say things happen in threes and apparently that was true for Geoff in terms of his customers’ names. The two who had come before me were named Star and Stella, he told me.
Once I’d decided to consult a fortune-teller in New Orleans, I figured I’d find an old lady behind a curtain of veils, with a candle and a crystal ball. But the first one I ran into during my writing marathon walking around the city with the other teachers was this guy. He was sitting in a shop inside a cinderblock building selling candles and crystals.
The four other teachers I was with agreed to leave me with him for the 30-minute reading and then come back and get me to continue with our “marathon.”
“I’m just going to lock you in here,” Geoff said as he closed his shop and excused himself to go to the bathroom before we started. At that point it hit me again that he was, in fact, a man. Maybe this was a bad idea. But I didn’t feel scared. Geoff didn’t seem aggressive or predatory, and I’m pretty sure he was gay.
He came back from the bathroom and I followed him to a back room, where he lit a candle. When he got out the tarot cards, I told him I didn’t like them. I’ve had some negative experiences before – pulling a bad card that turned out to be, unfortunately, pretty accurate. Then I asked him if he could tell me “something good” that would happen to me. That’s when he said that frankly, no, he couldn’t promise any such thing.
He described the process he goes through with all of his “clients” and asked me if I was still in.
Sure, I said, figuring that if he said something I couldn’t handle, then I’d just have to add this psychic reading to my list of regrets.
So then he told me to close my eyes and imagine myself in a pleasant, relaxed state. He stood up and started fanning me for several minutes, doing a sort of guided meditation. Although I’ve done this sort of thing before, this time I could not really picture myself in a “happy place” where I am safe and comfortable. I couldn’t really let my guard down all the way and get into the zone, so I just sat there with my eyes closed.
Then he sat down with his eyes closed and proceeded to describe what he saw.
He saw a man in a canoe being swarmed by butterflies. The man was annoyed and batted the butterflies away because he saw them as a distraction and a deterrent.
Then he saw a woman standing in front of a campfire putting her hands to the fire. She had to get “precariously close” to the fire in order to feel its power.
Finally, he saw some men on the roof of a church building. There was hole in the roof letting the light in. The men were trying to decide whether to close the hole for safety reasons.
After that, Geoff shuffled his stack of tarot cards and asked me to shuffle them myself. One of us (I can’t remember if it was me or him, but I think it was him) pulled five cards and he spread them on the table in front of us, explaining the meanings of their positions. This spread, he said, could be used to forecast my opportunities and challenges for the next six months.
Then he started talking about how the cards might relate to the scenes he pictured when he closed his eyes.
He told me one difficulty for me over the next six months will be trying to balance creative inspiration with security, most likely with regard to my job.
He’d pulled the hierophant card – which often represents large institutions, he said.
“It’s time for you to express yourself and express what’s important to you, even if you feel like there will be consequences,” he said. “For you to have this courage, you kind of need institutional support. The obvious thing to do is to find an institution that will support you.”
I hadn’t told him I’m a teacher, but what he was saying sounded valid. I often second-guess a lot of things I’d like to write about or say in public because I worry about the ramifications, socially and professionally. All the teachers I know, even the ones who aren’t doormats, talk about wanting and needing more institutional support. And while I’m mostly comfortable with everything I teach, I know there are some conservative religious folks who would absolutely object to some of the books and discussions we have at school.
He said he thought his vision with the butterflies was about the fact that what others might see as opportunities, I see as distractions, and I push them away because I am afraid of compromising security and stability.
Finally, he told me that the vision with the workers on the church roof was about this need to balance inspiration and creativity with safety.
“It’s kind of no right answer in a way,” he said. “I look at that and I say let the light in. You can always clean up the mess later.”
I saw his point, but I am not so sure taking more risks is possible for me. I have friends who can switch jobs every six months and seem not to burn any bridges. I know people whose friendships and lovers are easy-come, easy-go, and it does seem like those folks know something about living in the moment and enjoying life that has eluded me for a long time.
But I just don’t think I am one who can get away a lot of reckless behavior. I don’t think I’ll ever be the free spirit that my name implies. I walk a line partly because a lot of other people don’t.
“There is a little carpe diem here,” Geoff said. “If you put it off, you may not have the leverage you need further down the road.”
Then he asked if I had any more questions, and he seemed interested in my response to his advice.
“Well,” I told him, “I get what you are saying about the carpe diem thing. Without being too morbid, I think that’s what it is to be 40. It’s kind of like a mid-life crisis, even though my idea of a midlife crisis is painting my nails with glitter polish.”
I shook his hand and left.
Looking back, I’d call what Geoff did more of an intuitive counseling session than a psychic reading. He didn’t tell me anything specific that might happen or how I should react in any situation. Still, with almost no personal information about me other than my name and age, he did hit on one of my big internal conflicts.
Later that evening, my sister paid $20 to a young woman sitting at a card table in the street with a few crystals in front of her. The girl read her palm and told her to stop worrying and being a helicopter parent, and she mentioned something about hand sanitizer. My sister didn’t think what the girl said was particularly useful or accurate.
So I wonder, do all the psychics in New Orleans tell people to stop worrying and cut loose? Is there some NOLA association of psychics where they learn these strategies?
On the way home from the airport, after we’d been driving and flying for about 12 hours straight, I was so tired I didn’t talk much. At one point, my sister turned down the radio and looked at me.
“It seems like you had a good time, other than a few things, but you’re not sure you’d do it all again,” she said.
I still think she’s more psychic than your average palm reader on the street.