I’m not spiritual. I’m not religious. I don’t believe in arcane powers. I don’t believe that anyone, short of a time traveler, knows what the future holds with any degree of certainty. But every time I pass by a psychic’s booth on a dark, steamy street in a big city, I wonder what they would say to me. Perhaps it’s some element of self-importance or deep introspection–maybe I will be the one that defeats it and will be “unreadable,” a brooding passenger in the sands of time, confounding and perplexing the most clairvoyant of the world.

I’m not skeptical of psychics entirely, though, just their supernatural powers. Because like others, their profession operates entirely on slight of hand. Their job is to read–it’s just not cards they’re reading. They’re reading you.

While walking the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, I passed inside the Wellness bazaar. This is a horrible assortment of:

  • Voodoo trinkets
  • Chakra readings
  • Reflexology
  • Massages

And of course,

  • Psychic readings

For $20, I would get a 30-minute tarot card reading. As someone who is normally grossly fidgety with money, this seemed inordinately expensive. But I decided to go along anyway because I thought it would be a funny thing to write about.

How did I feel about psychics before visiting one?

Complete and utter bullshit. A waste of money. I knew very little about what they did, but I knew that no matter what that entailed, it would be built on a foundation of lies.

What happens?

The psychic booth at the bazaar had the psychic equivalent of a pimp or a madam, who stood at a counter and took money and did very little else. She also offered a spray that would “realign” my “chakra.” The woman offering this service managed to say this with a straight face and somehow, against all odds, I kept a straight face as the weirdness of the words softly deafened what was left of my visible amusement.

The psychic I met was a woman named Anne. She was old and soft-spoken, matronly without any of the endearing characteristics I associate with a grandma. I took a seat across the small black table from her and intentionally postured myself in a fashion that I thought would make me difficult to read. I didn’t want to seem nervous or uptight nor did I want to seem overly relaxed or cocky.

She handed me a deck of old, beaten cards and asked me to shuffle them. I learned after-the-fact that they make you do this to make you feel more like the future drawn involves you. As she instructed me to do this, she asked if I had a particular topic I wanted to focus on. I said no, but I could easily see someone coming to a psychic in a time of turmoil, like after a death in the family, a period of bad health, an ending relationship, or a job loss. I have nothing supremely wacky and unresolved going on in my life at the moment, even though I’m in a period of job transition between DeviantArt and my soon-to-be new job with Treehouse in a couple of weeks… and I’m doing a lot of new stuff.

I asked if it mattered how well they cards were shuffled and she said, “Just whatever feels right for you.” I’m not particularly good at shuffling cards so I just sort of weaved them around. I found my hands fumbling trying to do this quickly. I wondered if she’d pick up on it as a nervous tic. Or if I had magnificently shuffled them like an expert, if she would take that as a grandiose sign of confidence. I forced myself to stop evaluating these things because I realized she would probably notice I was distracted by it.

After I shuffled the cards, she spread them out on the table face-down and asked me to pick 10. I always find, in these circumstances, that I will pick the very first and last, and then pick randomly within. An odd “divide and conquer” search algorithm, I suppose. The 10 cards were then revealed in some meaningless configuration, and she pointed to the “death” card to inform me that I was going through a very large transformation in my life at the moment. Although that is certainly true, I didn’t think much of it because… whose life isn’t going through transformation? I didn’t say anything and let her continue to reveal to me that the events in my life trace back to a single isolated event. Again, true, but well, isn’t that how it always is? It reminded me of the fortune-teller scene from the movie Before Sunrise:

Jesse: I mean, just once, I’d love to see, some little old lady save up all her money, to go to the fortune teller, and she’d get there, all excited about hearing her future, and the woman would say, “Um-humm. Tomorrow, and all your remaining days will be exactly like today. A tedious collection of hours. And you will have no new passions, and no new thoughts and no new travels, and when you die, you’ll be completely forgotten.

I could feel her struggling to really come up with a story for me initially. Her job is to read my face and minute gestures, but I was being dodgy and evasive, silent and not asking any questions that she could feed from. She spoke in vague generalities, letting me know that this transformative period in my life is one I have brought for myself because I am looking to create something new while also trying to figure out who I am, and that I have all the things I need already to be a success–that it is a matter of bringing those things together.

More shuffling

She asks me again to shuffle the cards and start anew. I ask if there is a reason for this. She informs that we’ll continue to do this to get more information from the cards–that some things will not be immediately revealed.

One card in particular repeatedly came up every draw. The first time it came up, she asked if I had health problems. I paused for a moment to think, but then told her no. The only “health problem” I’ve had was several months ago, in which I had to have a periodontal cleaning at the dentist… hardly a pressing issue in the grand picture.  I caught myself giving some pretty strong skepticism to this, rather than my gentle nodding. The psychic reacted by telling me, “Maybe it is just personal stress then… you carry stress much more than others. When you experience anxiety, it takes its toll on you.” This is actually fairly true about me. And pretty much anyone who has ever spent time with me knows this… it’s certainly something you could read on a person based on their posture and facial expressions.

The card kept coming up in every draw. She would mention it every time, trying to dig deeper, convinced I had some sort of health issue I maybe wasn’t aware of yet. I couldn’t think of anything. I’m in totally reasonable health, as far as I know. If the next time I get an annual check-up it’s revealed I have cancer, I’m sure I’ll think back to Anne the Psychic, and say, “Well that certainly was an odd coincidence.”

My “soulmate”

Anne was convinced that I have a “soulmate,” but told me that a number of factors were preventing me from coming to terms with this, namely that I am “unable to commit to places, people, and life events.” I think this is one of the most fascinatingly specific things she told me, mostly because it came out of nowhere and isn’t something you would ordinarily say to a woman–most women are not commitment phobic and it is a weird thing to be able to read on someone.

So, I asked her to elaborate on that. She told me that one of the cards in my pile reveals “rejection,” that in the few times in my life in which I have committed to people, they have disappointed me tremendously and that because of that, I am incapable today of giving 100% of myself to pretty much anything because my life as a whole is full of chaos. These are truths about me. They are painful truths about me–the kind of truths I don’t understand about myself, the kind of things that anyone close to me would know about me and if anyone wanted to hurt me with the truth, those would be the most cutting words you could throw in my face. Because I tend to float invariably and I am sympathetic to the people I hurt with my floating.

However, these are not truths of the future. They’re truths that I think anyone could find in a person if given the right attention. But usually, due to how fast-paced modern life is, we don’t spend excessive amounts of time examining people for these sorts of things. They get lost.

Anyway, Anne continues to explain that I have already met my soulmate, and that, whoever this person is, is very aware of these things about me. He, she says, may not outright accept these things about me. I become fixated on the fact that she repeatedly refers to my soulmate as a “he,” primarily because she rejects that the cards can provide specific details but manages to assume I am heterosexual (not to mention that she is fairly certain that my “soulmate” is a person I have already crossed paths with).

The past

Anne tells me that I am very sensitive person. She says when other people feel things, I feel them too. She says sometimes I may not understand why I am feeling some way, but that it is because I have absorbed the energy from another person. She says that I am a person with a lot of energy. That I get restless.

I think the “sensitive” line is easy to say because I think that’s something most people want to hear and anyone could harbor some rationale for why it would be appropriate to use that word to describe them. I have, in the past, gotten annoyed when anyone used the word “sensitive” to describe me because it’s often been used negatively, in a way to make me sound handicapped, like I’m not emotionally strong. As a manipulative way of deferring blame for whatever douchey thing they did by suggesting that I am taking their actions too harshly.  Anne didn’t really spin the word one way or another, but she said that given my natural ability to reflect other people’s energy, I should try to surround myself with people who have positive energy because when I am in that situation, I am a source of light. I was curious how much of her saying that was just pushing positive warm fuzzy feelings everyone wants to hear and how much of that was a read on me based on my body language/cold reading.

She then informed me that I tend to internalize my emotions and try to handle negativity on my own rather than sharing it with others. Her suggestion was that I write, even if that means writing letters to others and then burning them. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I actually am a writer and that writing is often my de facto mode of communicating my heaviest emotions.

She pointed to one card on the table and told me it represented rejection. She said, “You had a rough childhood. One of great abandonment. However, you have managed to overcome this. It was a difficult lesson.” Another weirdly specific thing. I suppose everyone has felt some abandonment as a child though that, in later years, gets amplified by our memories as being worse than it actually is.

As the Italian poet Carlo Levi once said, “The future has an ancient heart.” Understanding the future has little to do with esoteric occult. It’s about getting out of your own head and seeing you as other people see you, to see your faults, the mistakes you’re making, the things you could be doing better… psychics and strangers won’t be able to answer these things for you, no matter how well they can read you. The people who can tell you these things best are people who you have close, intimate relationships with. People who see you in your most unhinged moments. But I guess sometimes psychics get a little voyeuristic peek into that window because we often become more open with people when we feel we have nothing to lose.

Sweeping Generalizations

The idea with cold reading is that you speak in trite generalizations about things so that the person getting the reading will focus and find something on their own. If they are an easy read, they might offer that information and the reader will continue to push them in that direction, making them feel like the reader is offering information when really they’ve done no such thing.

I’d imagine she hooked on to the abandonment bit because it might have been one of the few things my face reacted to. I did have a difficult upbringing. It’s not something that I am particularly bitten by today (as she says, I overcame that, which is obvious because I don’t look sad), but if you mention my childhood of neglect to me, I’m probably going to recall a few memories and have a slight reaction to it. Cue pulling on the heart strings some more.

However, if you are anything outside of their cookie cutter models they box these generalizations into and you manage to keep a poker face, you will sense a faint nervousness on the reader’s part. At several points, it hanged dejectedly in the air–a battle of the bullshit.

Subsets of Cards

Occasionally, there would be a card that Anne thought was significant and she would ask me to draw 6 more cards to highlight that card. I honestly don’t remember what these things were. As much as I am highlighting all the accurate reads she made, there were plenty of moments where I thought, “Where the fuck did she get that from?” or clear misreadings of me based on her own intuition of my appearance. For example, knowing that I was an American, she decided that because I had lived as a nomad, that I must have recently finished school. She of course assumed this because I look very young. I am 29, but most people think I am maybe 20-23 based on my physical appearance, clothing, and general demeanor. It’s been 6 years since I graduated from college, so the assessment is totally off-base and I clarified that but didn’t offer much more personal information about my life in terms of my career… namely because my career situation is so unusual that I thought it would be entertaining to see where she went with it.

Anne assumed that I left a job to travel and that I did not have another job lined up. She had quite a bit to say about all of this. The interesting thing is that overall, she was on point about the general emotions I was feeling… she just wasn’t right about the facts. She told me that I have a lot of power but don’t always know that I have a lot of power. That I have, in the past, felt inadequacy in regards to my career but that it would seem I am letting go of these feelings and that I have a wide abundance of options ahead of me. But, she also seemed to think that I was in some sort of financial trouble. Which I definitely am not.

At the end of the session, she asked me if I had any questions. I asked if there was any particular energy or mood that the cards were speaking about me in general. She blurted out rather quickly, “Rejection and abandonment.”

I said, “Thanks,” and stood up to walk away from the booth. She then told me, “Enjoy the rest of your stay in Cape Town!”

A Summary of What Anne Thinks of Me (TL;DR)

According to Anne, I am a young lady going through a heavily transformative time in my life. I have a dark past of rejection and abandonment, but despite that (or maybe in spite of that), I carry overwhelmingly large amounts of energy, light, and positivity into the lives of others. My future will be determined by how I make use of what I have now. Conveniently vague, no?

How do I feel about psychics now?

The same as I did before. I think if you’ve ever wanted a complete stranger to evaluate your personality on first impression alone without the awkwardness of pulling a stranger off the street and asking them to do that… this works, I suppose. I wouldn’t really recommend it to someone, especially not in exchange for money, but it’s certainly interesting… I suppose a unique way for you to get a new vantage point on things you already know about yourself. Probably not a good way of finding out anything you didn’t already know.

Shortly after doing this, I read a nice write-up on psychic cold-reading by a man who worked as one for a day, primarily working with women who were a bit younger than me, but would roughly be the age that someone would guess me to be. It confirmed everything I felt about the art of cold reading quite nicely.

I feel sort of sorry for anyone that would take the cards seriously or think that their fates are sealed in whatever random things they drew from a self-shuffled deck. I wouldn’t say that the service is of no value. It is, in some way, reaffirming to have a stranger present to you how you appear to others, although I think I’d appreciate it more if it were presented as that, and not under the guise of spiritual speculation about the near or distant future.

And no, this is not something I would ever waste my time doing again. I appreciate it for the story, but little else.

“Remember, bad times… are just times that are bad.” – Katrina, the fortune teller in Animal Crossing