This is the first in a series of blog posts on the meaning, power, and purpose of divination.
“Who you’ve been is not always who you are going to be.” Amy Holmes
A story from my family is finally being told, and a small detail of its unfolding has me pondering the purpose of divination, a practice popularly thought of as fortune telling but containing those letters in its name that call our attention to the Divine.
The story is a difficult one. In his memoir Sharp, my cousin David Fitzpatrick recounts his two decades of delusion, cutting and burning, self-loathing, and long stints in psychiatric facilities in vivid and honest detail. When the veil of illness begins to lift and the self-mutilation stops, the reader can believe in miracles, but also knows that this particular marvel was preceded by David’s hard work in therapy, in relationships, in re-training the voices in his head.
A diviner – a palm reader actually but I can also imagine her as a Tarot reader – appears early in story’s unfolding, during the summer before David’s life begins to unravel. What the palm reader does is not helpful, is perhaps even a little damaging. It is hard for me to hear that piece of the story. It is hard to hear almost all of the story.
So why tell it?
Because stories heal, transform, and teach both the teller and the listener. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and author of Coyote Wisdom: The Power of Story in Healing, writes, “Stories contain the hidden secrets of transformation, the alchemist’s formulas for turning lead into gold. If we hear enough stories about profound transformations, we find ourselves transforming, even in spite of ourselves. While we can’t command transformation, we can create an enriched environment that makes it more possible.”
I wish the palm reader had had some sense of the possibility of turning lead into gold. Here is how David describes the interaction:
“I had a strange moment with a palm reader in Oak Bluffs that seemed silly at the time. She refused to read me. I stopped on a lark, said hello, and gave her the fee. I forgot how much maybe five dollars or something. Then she sat down and closed a saffron-colored curtain while I stretched out my sweaty palm. She fit the part with a nose ring and scarf.
‘I think it’s too complicated,’ she said, almost immediately. ‘Your life looks complex and bumpy.’
‘Is bumpy a term that you care to expand on?’ I said, smiling uncomfortably.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t wish to. I won’t – it’s out of my hands.’
‘Jesus, lady,’ I said. ‘Lighten up.’ I hesitated a minute and said, “It’s not too bumpy, is it?’
‘It’s out of my hands,’ she said, returning the money and closing the curtain. Later I thought she reacted that way because I was jumpy or, perhaps, appeared overly revved. But I can’t say it didn’t haunt me, that it didn’t hover at the back of my mind like a prescient mosquito, popping up every now and again to warn, ‘Something’s on the way.’”
There are lots of evaluations that could be made here, including: “You get what you pay for” and “Perhaps this was really the best she could do” or “She was actually pretty accurate.”
But as a story, it stings. No help is offered. No healing story explored. Possibility is absent and worry planted.
The palm reader got caught in thinking that Accuracy is the end of the line on the Divination Line. But there are many more stops to come for the diviner and the seeker: Fostering Insight, Inviting Choice Making, Uncovering Possibility, even Breakthrough and Healing.
I don’t believe that there is one way to practice divination. In my sessions, I focus on helping people articulate their questions, tune into their intuition, tell their own stories, and come to life-giving decisions, sprinkled lightly with my own intuitional insights and Tarot knowledge. A favorite stop for me on the Divination Line is Uncovering Possibility. If I had to choose just one station this would be it. (For one of my favorite possibility and palm reading stories, see my earlier post on the poet Robert Desnos.)
I work this way because it flows from my particular set of skills and my beliefs. But I also know readers and channels who offer much healing in their work. At last Readers Studio, for example, I had a wonderful reading where Judy Nathan said to me, “I am going to tell you a story.” There were challenging cards driving the story but she always returned to places of potential, and by calling her reading a story, she invited the idea that I could work to write the story a different way. Donnaleigh of Tarot Tribe also has an interesting post on how fortune telling and choice making can work hand in hand.
So I the plea that I want to make to any fellow practitioners who might be stalled in the station of Accuracy is: Find ways to travel at least a station or two beyond to bring back gifts for yourself and the seekers you serve.
Because the one who seeks can surprises us. As Amy Holmes says at the start of the post: “Who you’ve been is not always who you are going to be.” This is a brilliant statement about potential and transformation from a woman who seeks it out in the world and the people around her. How do I know this? Amy is one of my newest cousins. Last Halloween she wed David in a ceremony filled with beautiful words and images. The party was fine, too. We celebrated love and also miracles, those improbable but always possible points of light in our lives.