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Personal Essays

The Querent

Fortunetelling is easy to ridicule, frequently misunderstood, and, for some people, extremely powerful. Unfortunately, what’s very tough to predict is what reading futures will do to the person with the cards.

Credit: Lauren Nassef

Like many children, I wanted to be more powerful than the world around me, and so I became interested in magic. I read novels of wizards and sorceresses, dragon-riding heroes and lost kings hidden from their enemies, raised as commoners to protect them. I went to the library and read first into the mythology section and soon found myself coming home with The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer. This, I did not know until I got it home, was a famous anthropological work on magic. I’d hoped it was a spell book. All I knew was that I wanted to whistle up a wind.

Any skill I have now at whistling came from those early tries at learning the tricks of a druid. At Halloween I dressed as a mage in a long flowing cape and borrowed one of my mother’s favorite cocktail necklaces, a giant topaz pendant I thought best resembled a magical amulet. I became—again, like many—perhaps too proficient at Dungeons and Dragons.

As I entered middle school, I developed a plan to go someday to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where you could study parapsychology. The idea of studying grandmothers who felt they had “the sight” was the best thing I could think of for my life.

And then my world flew apart in just about every direction: My father was injured severely in a car accident, the safety windshield of his car blowing in instead of out during a head-on collision. The accident left him paralyzed down the left side of his body, with severe internal injuries. The man driving the car he was in was injured less severely, but died.

I was 13 at the time of the accident, 16 when my father died of complications related to his injuries. When I look back at why of all the forms of the occult I’d found the one that appealed to me most was fortunetelling, it seems to me the answer came from my father’s accident and death. I wanted to know how to tell the future. I wanted one of those mirrors, the ones positioned so you can see around a corner, but for my whole life. That’s what I believed the Tarot could be.

 

When I was growing up, my family had what I think of as a whimsical approach to fortunes, which is to say they were not something to take seriously or they were taken seriously in ways that seemed comic. I remember my father, for example, dressed as a gypsy for a Rotary Club fundraiser, reading palms in a tent and winking at me as he stuck his head out, his head wrapped in a ridiculous bandanna. And then there was his sister, my aunt, who wept in fury at her inventor husband in Massachusetts quitting his highly paid chemical engineering job to unhappily try to perfect a fortune-cookie-making machine—on visits, he brought us trash bags full of trial cookies, some with three fortunes, some with none. At first my friends loved eating them, but we soon wearied of them as they grew stale and eventually used the trash bags they came in to throw them away.

When I took to fortunetelling myself, though, I was serious. Too serious, in the way that makes you foolish.

My first Tarot deck was the Crowley Deck, brainchild of the famous early 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley and Lady Freida Harris. In retrospect, it was the perfect deck for me, but having it was a great deal like buying an expensive sports car and using it to light your cigarettes, which is also something I did back then.

By this I mean I went to college still deranged by grief at the death of my father—or perhaps better put, in college, the numbness and shock wore off and I began to feel everything at once—and the first thing I did with the trust was go to an Alfa Romeo dealership, pay for a new sedan with a check and drive that car to school.

Crowley, it should be said, was, in pictures, a beautiful man when he was young, a bisexual opium-using crush-magnet, feral, fey, and floppy-haired. At the time, these kinds of men were always getting me in trouble.

I was, after all, 18 years old.

I had not, in the end, gone to the University of Edinburgh, but to Wesleyan University, a few hours south of our home in Maine, in the Connecticut River Valley, beautifully spooky all the same, but differently, even whimsically. I could not major in parapsychology, but it didn’t feel necessary. Wesleyan was full of people who read Tarot cards, for example, because it was full of people who believed everything. You could, in a week, attend Mass and a seder, stay up all night reading a Ouija board, get a Tarot reading, go to a Wiccan moon ritual, wake up and take Communion, and if anyone looked askance, shrug it off. Contradictions were defended, proudly—for example, like the expensive Italian sports car bought with my trust fund, which I had done because the money felt like money made from my father’s death. I remember other students would look at it sometimes with scorn and tell me I was privileged, in the class harrowing that passes for hazing there, and I would simply shrug and say, “You’re right. I’m privileged. I’m so privileged that my father is dead.” Then whomever it was would run away.

Which is what my behavior sought.

Crowley and Harris had attempted to take centuries of esoteric occult teachings and render them into a single deck of cards, whose regular use would, for the adept, also work as a kind of mnemonic exercise. Slowly you would learn, in other words, the relationships between ancient gods and goddesses, astrological signs, planets, alchemical sigils. Each card felt like it had the ability to be one of 78 windows into the secret life of the world, hidden somewhere beyond the air, under the skin of existence.

Crowley, it should be said, was, in pictures, a beautiful man when he was young, a bisexual opium-using crush-magnet, feral, fey and, floppy-haired. At the time, these kinds of men were always getting me in trouble.

To his credit and Harris’s, the deck was, per their wishes, not published until after their deaths. As a gesture it reminds me of E.M. Forster’s decision to keep his novel Maurice back, the novel an open secret he allowed only his friends to read, published after his death. On reflection, it seems to me much of what I love about literature is also what I love about the Tarot—archetypes at play, hidden forces, secrets brought to light. When I bought the deck, it was for the same reason I bought the car—I wanted to feel powerful in the face of my fate. I felt too much like a character in a novel, buffeted by cruel turns of fate. I wanted to look over the top of my life and see what was coming; I wanted to be its author.

If I were in fact writing a novel about someone like me, of course, this is exactly what would lead him astray.

And so it was I appeared one day at the Magic Shop, a little purple cottage not far from the deli where I worked mornings making sandwiches at 7 a.m., in expiation for what I’d spent on that car. The dream catchers banged on the door as I went in with the friend I brought with me to buy my deck for me. I’d heard that Tarot cards had to be given to you and I wasn’t prepared to wait. I wanted my gift when I wanted it, which was now.

 

In reading the Tarot in those first days, I worked to master the basics—in particular the 10-card reading, the Celtic Cross, which involves shuffling the 78-card deck, cutting it and either pulling cards from the top or spreading them in a fan and letting the querent, the person who’s having the reading done, choose them, laying them down into the spread’s shape as they are handed to you.

The book with the cards recommended that I quietly hold the cards in my hand and ask them for guidance. I remember as I tentatively closed my eyes and did so. This was an uncomfortable thing to do at first, but that probably says more about who I was than about the gesture.

Tarot is said to be an ancient system, but it is more a way of knowing ancient systems than an ancient system itself. Our modern version of the Tarot is really just about 100 years old.

In the occult, as in life, perhaps even more so, good manners matter.

Tarot cards are composed of cards of two kinds, the Major and Minor Arcana. There are 22 Majors, numbered from 0, The Fool, to 21, The World, and they take you step by step along what’s called The Fool’s Journey, with each card representing forces like The Sun, The Moon, The Devil, and so on. These have more weight in a reading, typically, than a Minor Arcana card. The Minors are divided among 4 suits: Pentacles, Swords, Wands, and Cups being the standard types. Each of the suits is numbered 1-10, and then has a court of 4: a Page or Princess, a Knight or Prince, a Queen, and a King. There are 56 of these.

In reading the cards, you turn them over as you lay them out, or you turn them over as you read them, and create a narrative, each card like a scene or a chapter. You’re to look at the symbolism of each card but also use the fleeting impressions you get as you hold the card in your hand, and then as you read each card, create a relationship between the cards before and the cards that come after. In that sense, it is a terrific narrative exercise.

Each card has some standard meanings or associations—destruction, creativity, an affair, a lover, a fair-haired man, a dark-haired one, moving on, and so on, and typically each deck comes with a book that has these meanings in it. But of course there are worlds within worlds, and patterns to learn—some suits are hostile to others, cards mean different things in different positions, and the numbers that appear also have meanings, and so on. There are also the reversed-card meanings, provided you agree to work with reversed cards (some do, some do not).

I never once thought to look into the history of the Tarot. I never thought to ask, “Where did this come from?” From the beginning, the cards felt as if they’d always existed. But this is not true.

 

The conventional history available to the average reader on most mainstream Tarot study websites says the Tarot began as a card game of some popularity among 15th century Italian nobility, called Triunfo. It did not involve either fortunes or heresies, though it was still informed by esoteric occult knowledge. It did not become what it is to us now until approximately the early 20th century, through the efforts of the Society of the Golden Dawn, a group of spiritualists who were attempting to codify that esoteric occult knowledge. We are told that the most common of card layouts is the Celtic Cross, which attempts to give a querent a picture of the person on the edge of their fate, with cards for the querent, the situation, what crosses them, what crowns them, what their foundation is, their recent past, their near future, their obstacles, allies, hopes, and final outcome.

Tarot is said to be an ancient system, but it is more a way of knowing ancient systems than an ancient system itself. Our modern version of the Tarot is really just about 100 years old.

The Crowley Harris Deck was intended, it seems to me, as something of a rebuke to the Waite Tarot, the most popular deck then and now. It also contains a card with The Tetragrammaton, a drawn symbol that replaces the name of God for those who believe it cannot be spoken or written. The Tetragrammaton has no meaning, per the book accompanying the deck, within a reading. And yet was in the deck.

In New York State, fortunetelling is illegal, a class B misdemeanor. It is only legal, per Article 165 of the New York Penal code, if you tell the questioner that it is for entertainment purposes.

This, out of all of it, felt like a trick.

My college roommate and best friend, Aaron, asked me for a reading. We laid out the cards and I did my best to interpret them. The Tetragramaton appeared.

“Whoa!” he said. He usually said this ironically, but it lacked that tinge this time.

Rendered in red and black, it was very dramatic to look at. It looked forceful, the Tarot equivalent of Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings shouting, “You shall not pass!” I don’t remember the content of the reading otherwise; I just remember that at the end, Aaron said, “Just for kicks, let’s do another reading. See what we get.”

“To see if we get the same cards?”

“Yeah,” he said, and smiled.

We shuffled mightily, I placed the deck down, and spread the cards in a long aisle from which he drew again, then I laid them out.

Of the 10 cards in the reading, seven were the same, and five of those were in the exact same places on the table, including the Tetragrammaton

“Holy shit,” he said.

I agreed. We put the cards away.

And then, much later, I brought them back out.

 

The feeling of something coming true, or of something speaking to you through the cards, is probably the hardest part of reading the Tarot. You read it because you want contact with something greater than yourself and you have questions, and you want the cards to answer you. The problem comes when they do.

Most of the time, the cards seem most relevant to describing hidden ambivalences or fears, things you normally hide from yourself and that emerge in synchronicity with the cards. A querent can spend an entire reading, for example, simply nodding as the reader describes what he or she sees. Frequently, it’s better to leave out any personal information, so that the reader can read unimpeded. Information from a querent creates opinion in the reader, and enters and clouds what might otherwise be a better reading.

When my roommate and I saw those seven cards repeating in his second reading it was a shock. To be clear, he picked the cards by hand. They were new, so they weren’t marked in ways that might reveal them. It seemed at the least improbable, but also, like a snarl. As if whatever it was that I’d naively asked for guidance had decided to mock our test even as it met the test. I put the cards away because they scared me with how, when I asked them a question, something had answered. But I couldn’t forget it. When I finally took them out again, it was because I wanted to speak to whatever that was again.

I grew used to recurring cards in readings, eventually thinking of them like weather that returned with the season. I stopped being afraid of the cards that terrify: Three of Swords, which usually is the card of a breakup or betrayal; Eight of Cups, which often tells you to move on; The Tower, the card of an explosive change of state—the powerful thrown down, the lowly made powerful; Nine of Swords, the card of mental anguish; 10 of Swords, total defeat. These descriptions are, of course, approximations, lacking nuance, and much of Tarot is about nuance. I read many books on the Tarot, but in the end, there was perhaps too much nuance, and this tool I’d meant to guide me confused me. So first I became impatient with the cards, then I forgot about them. I put them away as I always did, and then years went by before I took them out again, no longer scared, just disinterested.

And then I became a professional Tarot reader.

 

It was 1999, and I was now a yoga teacher and working at a Soho studio. The owner asked at a staff meeting if anyone read the Tarot. I raised my hand. With this began one of the more interesting ways I’ve ever made money.

In New York State, it should be said, fortunetelling is illegal, a class B misdemeanor. It is only legal, per Article 165 of the New York Penal code, if you tell the questioner that it is for entertainment purposes. The owner of the studio, an affable South American who seemed indifferent to mortal laws, pointed this out for me. It surprised me, coming from him. “Don’t get us in trouble,” he said. I was incredulous, but when I looked up the law, it was true. I tried then to think of what to say to clients. “This is just for fun” seemed not quite the right note. My eventual disclaimer was sarcastic: “Are you having fun yet? Because the state of New York requires me to tell you this is an entertainment.”

Will I be loved, will the love last, is my lover cheating? Will I have money, will it last, will I be cheated? It’s the shadow on every kiss and every dollar. If there’s a demon lurking when you read your cards, it is inside the querent when they ask about love or money.

Disclaimers about entertainment aside, reading for someone else is a tricky thing. To do so for money is even trickier. It’s uncomfortable. The mask of the querant drops in their pursuit of an answer much of the time, and you see them whole in some way they don’t share with others. Ambition, lust for power, achievement, money, or love—these can show up, not in the querent’s cards as much as in the questions they ask you about a reading, or their expressions as you answer. I agreed to do it in a very casual way, in need of extra money, and was suddenly in too close a contact with many people’s lives.

The best you can do, I think, is stay focused on the cards, and not on the person. If you know them, you try to avoid what you know of them. In some ways, the very best readings are the most impersonal ones, as they allow the querent a chance to understand the cards free of any personal interpretation. The Tarot cards are archetypes, impersonal metaphors, intimate experiences of an impersonal kind. When your cards are read, you drop one idea of yourself and encounter another.

I remember walking down the street in my neighborhood in Brooklyn around this time, and a woman sitting at a table with her cards yelled to me, “Come, come, I see something good for you!”

“Thanks!” I said, and kept walking. I didn’t need to know more.

But this detachment didn’t last.

 

In yoga teacher training, I learned there’s something called the siddhis. “The gifts,” roughly translated. It was an unexpected part of the literature, a section that said the practice of yoga could purify your body such that you’d experience abilities like telepathy, clairvoyance, levitation. These same texts also warned that such gifts were obstacles to enlightenment, challenges—to have them could make you feel like a God. Even being a yoga teacher is potentially an obstacle to enlightenment.

Anything, in other words, that suggests to you that you’d have undue power over others, that you were somehow better than someone else—this is an obstacle.

It was in this light, then, that I viewed what I think of as the dark side of fortunetelling. Love and money. Will I be loved, will the love last, is my lover cheating? Will I have money, will it last, will I be cheated? It’s the shadow on every kiss and every dollar. If there’s a demon lurking when you read your cards, it is inside the querent when they ask about love or money.

This part is also the most ordinary. It is all most of us want to know about. For all that I wanted to be extraordinary, in the period I speak of, all I wanted to know from the Tarot was about love and money. I became obsessed with knowing how a relationship would turn out. Was X boyfriend really over Y ex-boyfriend? Where was he the other night when he didn’t want to come over? I might take the cards out to be reassured, but midnight, when you think your boyfriend is cheating, is, shall we say, a bad time to draw cards. And so I even acted badly, I think, because of them, becoming more jealous or apprehensive when if I’d only seen things as they were, if I’d only stayed in the bounds of the world and not tried to look behind the paint on the walls, or to even think I could, the relationship might have gone better. I’d have false ideas by the time I spoke with them again, ideas that had nothing to do with what was happening. My interest, I can see now, was in whether I could know answers without asking questions regarding my own insecurities. Instead of conducting some basic relationship emotional hygiene—“Is this working for you? Is this working for me?”—I went to the cards and returned with a mind full of fictions. If I had good news from the cards, it made me lazy; bad news and I couldn’t sleep. And this, of course, is why you shouldn’t read for yourself. You can’t give yourself the impersonal reading you need. It’s much like writing an essay, or including autobiographical content in fiction—to succeed, it requires an ability to be coldly impersonal about yourself and your state, so as to not cloud what is there with what you want to see. I think few of us are given to know enough about our lives to know our place in them—we can’t see ourselves as we might a character in a novel, with the same level of detachment and appraisal. We can’t, in other words, see ourselves as I wanted to that day when I entered the store and bought my cards. We think this means this, and this means this, and in the meantime the meaning is loose somewhere else, and the omen lies on the ground, facedown, as good as mute. And the reader sits there, trying to read for himself, alone with a deck of cards as his life moves on in ways he can’t see for looking at the cards.

If I could, I’d go back in time and tell myself, “This is how it turns out. You, sitting here, alone in your apartment, reading cards.”

 

When I decided to write this essay, my editor suggested I get a reading of some kind. I was in Spain at the time, on vacation, and pondered the perils of locating one of the famous Galician witches, but Galicia was too far away, and few things are as frightening in Spain as witches that the Spaniards all vouch for.

I wrote to my friend Rachel Pollack instead. Rachel is one of the world’s foremost Tarot experts, the author of 17 books on the Tarot, including authoritative texts for the Salvador Dalí and Haindl Tarot decks, and the creator of a deck of her own, The Shining Tribe. She’s also a superb fiction writer. Her novel Unquenchable Fire is one I admire a great deal—a satire of magic and suburban America, like Freedom but with spells for green lawns. I met her as a colleague when I taught at Goddard College’s low-residency MFA program for a year, where we spent week-long residencies each semester with our students, doing the in-person part of the semester’s work during the day, and hunkering down in the Vermont woods together for cafeteria lunches. At those lunches, Rachel spoke elegantly to me about the Tarot. But when she drew cards to shape a graduation speech she gave, it was then, listening, that I understood the Tarot differently. The speech used the cards as leaping-off points, weaving for us all a sense of the moment, not the future, that was powerful. She gave the graduating class a reading.

What I understood, listening to her, is that the mirror I wanted, back when I wanted to see around corners into the future, was actually not for seeing the future at all; the mirror is for seeing the now. The level of mastery Rachel had of Tarot was something of another order from where I’d been working. She was an artist and I was a drunk. She could stand and speak through the cards’ symbols in ways that reached past those symbols, and I was addicted to the idea I might glimpse a lower truth, a literal one, of what happens next. And so, shortly after returning from our second residency together, after a particularly long episode of trying to second-guess one of the men at the edge of my life, and whether or not I should move to California, I got rid of my cards. I shipped my boxes off to California without them and put them out with the trash.

If I was going to get a reading for this essay, in other words, I wanted Rachel. I wrote and asked her if she was game for an experiment, and she said yes.

The proposition I came up with for Rachel was to have her read my cards before I’d finished the essay. She asked if I wanted to draw my own cards or if she should draw them, and I decided I would draw them and send them to her.

I have a deck again, that is to say. Sometime last year, I went to a restaurant with friends and the backs of the menus were all Tarot cards. During dinner, I did an outsized short reading based on the menu card each of us were handed, and one of my friends, sufficiently impressed with what I managed to tell her, bought me a deck.

The deck is the Blake Tarot, a deck illustrated using William Blake’s artwork and redefined by his philosophies. For my essay reading, I shuffled and drew three cards, a very simple reading layout sometimes called The Three Fates.

First card: 10 of Science—also known as 10 of Swords in a more conventional deck. Second card: Error, or The Devil. Third card: Stars, or The Star.

It was a good reading for a querent to get, I thought as I looked them over, with the querent rising from utter defeat to ascension. It was also, I noticed, something of the conventional narrative for most personal essays—an author struggles with his bondage to something he came to as a result of a defeat in his past, and emerges with a better sense of his present place in the universe.

It was almost a disappointment, except that it was how I would have liked this to be my situation.

I sent the results to Rachel. I told her what I asked, for a picture of my relationship to the Tarot, and she wrote back after a few days with this reading:

Reading for Alexander Chee: His evolving relationship to Tarot

10 of Science (Defeat)      
15, Error    
17, Stars

Alex drew these cards as a group rather than with specific questions in mind. And yet, it’s hard not to see them as a progression, with Defeat and Error representing a kind of dead end, or at least a limited direction, and Stars as a kind of spiritual and metaphysical breakthrough that opens up Alex’s perspective to Tarot and maybe larger issues.

10 of Science

These cards are from the William Blake Tarot, and Blake saw science as the outgrowth of a mechanistic worldview that he believed was not only wrong but led to misery and oppression. Thus the final numbered card of the suit shows a scene reminiscent of Laocoön and his sons being strangled by serpents for having offended the gods. In an overly dramatic way the card suggests Alex has tried to analyze the Tarot, or study it in a detached way, which can only lead to “Defeat.”

15, Error

In most decks this card is called The Devil, and in fact we see a Lucifer-like figure seemingly wrapping up souls in a kind of gluey web. This reinforces the limitations suggested in the first card. The error is somehow in the approach to Tarot, and the attempts perhaps to use it for information or analysis rather than a spiritual guide. The previous card suggests the error is primarily one of thinking, so Alex might ask himself just how he has looked at Tarot in his mind. Remember, however, that “Lucifer” means “Light-Bringer” and he is connected with the Morning Star, Venus, symbol of hope, and suggested in the next card. Card 15 is the light of love trapped in darkness, but with the energy of its own liberation held within it like a seed.

17, Stars

The central figure here emerges from darkness into light and a wider vision of the wondrous magical world. With an image as dramatic as the first two cards (this reading, and the Blake Tarot in general, are not trying to be subtle!) the card shows a great breakthrough for Alex in his understanding of the Tarot. The figures trapped in Error might be seen as released into the sky in Stars. Or, Alex’s way of looking at people through the Tarot becomes transformed. The large open book on the table might be the Tarot, its mysteries now open to Alex’s greater consciousness. The original name for card 17, The Star, probably referred to the Morning Star, Venus’s light of love released from the Error of the previous approach.

Rachel’s reading seems to me very precise, except for the third card, which of course is the part that remains to be seen.

 

It seems to me there are two kinds of people, the ones who want to know the future, and the ones who do not. I have been both. For now, I think I know which one is better. Yes, I do have cards again. And it may be I am like that drunk who tells himself he can handle his alcohol now. But if I told you I could tell the future, you would laugh at me. And I would laugh at me, too.

In 2006, I had a lesson in knowing the future. I had gone to visit my father’s oldest brother, who we grew up calling Uncle Bill. He was visiting from Seoul and staying in New York’s Koreatown at the small but decent hotel he always stayed at in New York. I went that night to come out to him and give him my first book. It was past time. I’d been doing Korean-language publicity and there was the remote chance he would end up being sent an article about me. I didn’t want this to be the way he learned I was gay.

The conversation went as well as it could, or better, given that, historically, Koreans tend to deny gay people exist. But my uncle was a law professor, with a career spent dedicated to international boundary law. He was a man of the world, the first one I really knew—able to wear tasseled loafers and have it look elegant and not silly. And so there we were, in his room, seated on the hotel’s green club chairs, close to saying goodnight. It was after dinner, I’d given him the book, and we were now discussing the vagaries of me having children and a family as a gay man.

“Don’t you want one of these?” he said, pointing with energy at photos of my siblings’ kids that I’d passed along to him.

I explained to him I could still have a family with another man, could still have a family if I was gay. To that, he told me this story.

He’d visited a fortuneteller in Korea when he was leaving for college in the U.S. She told him that his younger brother would die young, and he would take his brother’s children as his own, as he would father no children himself. He would either not marry or not stay married, the fortuneteller added.

Here he paused and looked at me. In his expression was someone braced against his entire life, betting his whole life against this fortune coming true. I saw him take the call with news of my father’s accident almost 30 years ago now, saw him marrying late in life, in his 40s, then divorcing.

I think sometimes of asking, but it seems to me now, after my uncle’s story, that you think you want to know the future until you do.

After my father’s untimely but apparently foretold death, 27 years ago, he alone of my father’s entire family stayed in touch with us the most, but it was not frequent—cards at the holidays, a visit every three years. I’d always wondered why we hadn’t seen him more, and right then I wondered if it was just too terrible, to think of us in relationship to his fortune. What would it be like to look at the phone and think of calling us all those years?

As I hugged him good night, I wanted to stay, to somehow walk him back through the days of his life and remove the fortune’s long shadow, to return him to who he was at the moment before he heard his future, or, to fulfill it all, to at least make it true that he had become my second father. Of the things to not come true, this was maybe the most bitter to consider as I hugged him and said good night. And yet I understood. Here, at least, was a choice to make. A way to feel free, even if that was all you felt.

On the subway home, I remembered the story of my own trip to a fortuneteller as an infant in Seoul. All she would say, apparently, was, “This one, he has much to do.”

If she said anything else, no one remembers. I think sometimes of asking, but it seems to me now, after my uncle’s story, that you think you want to know the future until you do. It would be like waiting for a bullet to pace its way to your side across the years.

Perhaps the only way to escape your fate is to not know it.

 

Back when I was in college, I remember doing mushrooms for the first time with friends. I closed my eyes and could see patterns that seemed to me like the world precisely rendered in scrawled plaids and geometries. I opened my eyes, laughed, closed my eyes again, and walked across the room to get the cigarettes from the table. I lit one and walked back to the bed and sat down.

I didn’t once open my eyes, and I didn’t miss.

Now, when I think of not knowing the future, I remember when, in a yoga class, my teacher had us begin our practice by doing sun salutes with our eyes closed, for as long as we could stand it. “What can you trust of what you can’t see?” he would ask, as we moved slowly and then faster, trying not to fall.

What can you trust of what you can’t see? 

biopic

Alexander Chee is the author of Edinburgh (Picador, 2002) and The Queen of the Night, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, an NEA in Fiction, and a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship and has written for Out, Granta.com, n+1, Paris Review Daily, and NPR. He lives in New York City and blogs at Koreanish. More by Alexander Chee