It’s been over a month since I started writing up various posts for this blog on The Hunger Games Adventures and dys4ia and Star Wars: The Old Republic and a half dozen other topics. Hopefully those thoughts will mature into coherence, but in the meantime I thought I’d write about a quickly-evaporating, transient cultural experience: fortune-telling. The art of reading tea leaves, as performed by my grandmother.
I come from a family of ersatz fortunetellers. I say “ersatz” because the tradition only started with my grandmother. She began reading palms as a teenager in 1940s Wales, mostly for laughs and charming intrigue. In later decades, she employed many methods of divination: tarot, more generalized psychic counseling, everything short of a crystal ball. By the mid-60s she and her kids were living in the Los Angeles area, where they sometimes earned extra pin money by telling fortunes. On some occasions, they even leveraged our family’s barely-swarthy Celtic look and ringlets of dark hair to dress up like a family of Romany. (I suppose this wasn’t considered an incredibly sketchy thing to do a half-century ago?) They’d then tell fortunes at big parties thrown by wealthy Los Angeles socialites, earning tips and clients.
Although most of my spindle-side family members have carried on their quasi-mystical hippie practices in one way or another, my grandmother’s the only one who’s continued to support herself as a fortune teller. These days she mostly does so as a kind of “spiritual counselor,” lending a little more respectability to the ladies she listens to and advises in a back room of her Santa Barbara house. She still reads their tea leaves, and their palms.
Tasseomancy–divination through tea leaves or coffee grounds–has always seemed like one of the more implausible methods of divination to me. It’s an interestingly genteel evolution of staring at animal entrails, the leftovers and byproducts of a meal. Where’s your future in a mess like that? For my grandmother, the literal idea of “this gook tells your future” isn’t that important; she uses the semi-random patterns as a lens for her own intuitions about a subject.
I visit my grandmother every year or two–more now that I worry over her increasing frailty–and I usually ask her to read my leaves. I don’t need to cultivate a literal belief in the supernatural to appreciate the unconditionally kind, deeply caring focus of her attention, or be astonished at her uncanny leaps of insight. I don’t believe she’s actually “telling the future,” but there’s some kind of highly intuitive process at work. She pulls together all sorts of information about a person into a kind of personalized apprehension of forward possibility.
Sometimes she really does appear to “glimpse” something that she doesn’t “actually” already know about, something she’s grasped in some more mysterious way. I’m as likely as the next skeptic to attribute this to conversational clue-assembly, or projection on my part, but the overall effect is a remarkably weird experience.
Today, for instance, she read my leaves and said I was going to be involved in a new project with a very energetic and extroverted woman who was good at promoting things. No huge surprises there. Then she got a little confused by something she was seeing:
REESHA: (my grandmother) I see that you’re making something, some sort of machine. Do you make machines? I didn’t know that.
NAOMI: Hmm, maybe?
REESHA: It’s not exactly a machine, though, but it’s something like a machine. What could that be? It’s like a printer, it’s a machine that can make other things. Maybe it makes other machines! Is there such a thing?
REESHA: If you are making such a thing it would be quite an invention! I think it might be a machine that like a printer, makes things that you can read, or perform, or play like music. Maybe it writes plays?
NAOMI: Yeah, I think you’re on to something there, that could describe some my work.
In case you’re not making the intuitive leap I did, the way that my grandmother’s talking about “machines that make things, like other machines, or things you can perform” is strikingly similar to some of the ways I and other people working in games talk about games as systems. Rules, or code, exist as structural artifacts that can create moments, sequences, sessions of play, enacted by players and oftentimes different with each “performance.” I often think about games like machines that exist partly in code, rules or pieces, and partly in the consciousness of people who play. I’ve even been thinking lately about “games that beget games,” systems that are both gamelike and tool-like, such as Minecraft.
Now, you might be thinking “Naomi, you must have said some of this to her, or she knows about it from talking to you.” My grandmother knows I work in games, but that’s about it; I’d arrived late the night before, gone to sleep, gotten up and had my tea leaves read. The only other people she might talk to about my work, or the particular ways I’m prone to talking about games, are my other relatives, most of whom don’t really converse on such topics either. She’s 85 and a little forgetful — so it’s certainly possible that some memory from years before was surfacing intuitively and forming part of a funny, confusing little pattern. Even so, it was a quirky little moment of magic.
She went on to tell me that I was going to be dealing a lot with a very stubborn but extremely hard-working person who was born in the Year of the Dog, and whose name began with L. I reminded her that this was basically a description of my girlfriend, and she laughed in delight. She’d forgotten about the first letter of Louisa’s name, and had only the vaguest idea of what year she was born in — but sometimes an unconscious guess you’re not even aware of is the best kind. Maybe it’s what fortunetellers are made of. Love you, Reesha.