Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Flora Jardine

            It’s fun to catch up with people from your past, such as those you knew at university. It surprises me to know what my erstwhile class-mates are doing today. The wealthy one raised in a mansion with two swimming pools has graduated to Planned Poverty. After reading his hippy grandfather’s “rags to riches” memoir, he followed a riches-to rags dream of his own, reversing his grandfather’s life journey. He too went off to find himself, and found himself on the street. He finds food in dumpsters.

            My first-year best friend by contrast came from a one-parent family on welfare, and never wore anything but hand-me-downs. She now works as a fashion journalist and has a knack for predicting trends, predicting and thwarting them. She calls herself a “closet resister”. Her magazine is called “Uniformly Disruptive”, named for what its readers dream they too could be. Its motto is “Your past is an illusion and your present is pretense. The future comes after”.

            My erstwhile Chemistry lab-partner takes a different position on the future. He works for a corporation that plants scientific concepts in the media which automatically shift, he says, like molecules stealing atoms from each other and becoming new substances. (Once a chemist always a chemist.) He calls this “lexi-chemistry” and thinks it’s the answer to climate change (or as he frames it, the Denial Emergency).

            Today I wonder whether these switch-backs in life paths could have been predicted back in university. Were the signs there, not in the stars but in the personalities? I ended up with a degree in Literature, not Chemistry, and most of my friends are writers. We have a career at which we try to lose as little as possible of the money we make in our day jobs. We hold shared book launches and readings. Some of these, the cost of renting venues being what it is, take place outdoors. We’ve tried pop-up readings in municipal parks, but we’re often obliterated by noise. You wouldn’t guess how noisy parks are until you try to hold a reading in one. The first time, we sneaked onto the edges of a public festival and were drowned out by a rock band. The next time things started well, but a gang of crows arrived and lined up on a tree branch, cawing as we declaimed: a stridently negative book review by Nature.

            Outdoors, the breeze tended to blow away our sheets of poetry, so we moved indoors when we found a “community space” which a property developer was temporarily offering for free before demolishing it. There we set out books and papers which still bore marks from the rocks we had used in the park to hold them down in the wind (not shop-soiled, they were slightly soil-soiled). Then we placed a sandwich board outside which said “Free Readings”.

            On the table inside the authors displayed the books they would read from, and decorated their piles with little signs saying SPECIAL TODAY! 20% OFF! This increased the rate at which we lost money on self-publishing, but what the heck, we said to each other, we write to be read, not to hide our books in boxes at the backs of closets. We clung to the glory of printed pages turned one by one and bound within striking covers. Although poor, we felt lucky to have time for creative pursuits and a Virginia Woolf-style “room of one’s own” in which to pursue them. And now we even had a room in which to sell them.

            Now, books on display, it was almost time for the reading to start, with refreshments to be served afterwards. The door opened and a long-haired disarrayed woman burdened by many shopping bags struggled in and dropped the heaviest ones at her feet.

            “I saw your sign outside,” she said. “What kind of readings do you do? Tea leaves? Tarot?”

            “Oh .. uh … actuallywe don’t do that kind of reading …”

            “You don’t tell the future?”

            “No. Sorry.”

            “Oh.” She looked downcast.

            “Would you like to buy a book?”

            “No thanks. But look, could someone read my fortune? I really need to know my future.”

            “Well no, I don’t think …”

            “Sure!” I interrupt jokingly. “Put the kettle on. Use the loose herbal tea, we’ll read the leaves! Why not?” It was a  jest … partly.

            “Great,” said the woman, and she plunked herself down on one of the chairs, obviously intending to stay there.

            Why not indeed, I thought. My fellow-authors looked dubious but I hurried to the kettle in the nook in the corner near the table where we intended to serve the snacks later. As a few more audience members trickled in I set two chairs on opposite sides of the little table in the corner and sketched out, very quickly in my mind, a story about a fortune-teller and her client, which I could enact in the flesh, in real time. Charles Dickens, I had read, used to act out dialogue in front of a mirror when he wrote a novel. If it worked for Dickens, it was good enough for me. I’ll say my lines in front of this stranger who will mirror what’s in my imagining mind, which will mirror my guess at what’s in hers. (What future does she want?)

            I studied my new character — I mean client — and it wasn’t hard to draw a few conclusions about her personality and expectations. Whatever future she was hoping for, we would co-invent. (In life, you get what you visualize; that I’ve long known.) Isn’t this combination of knowledge and imagination the alchemy of storytelling?

            My client seemed happy with the results. I murmured my insights while the authors read aloud on the other side of the room, the drone of their recitations making a veil behind which we found a weird zone of privacy. After I’d finished predicting (and covertly reassuring and encouraging her), my client asked what she owed me.

            “Oh … whatever you think it’s worth. A small donation would be fine.” Now I was embarrassed. In the spontaneity of the moment I hadn’t considered a fee and had no idea what fortune-readers charged. But I knew the woman wouldn’t consider it real if I didn’t let her pay something; she would think I was a fraud, messing with her.

            “I’m quite new at this, so I only charge a fraction of what an experienced reader does,” I explained, ‘quite new’ of course meaning I’d never done it in my life. She gave me a donation and I gave half back. Then we joined the rest of the audience listening politely to my co-writers’ stories and verses. They looked at me uncertainly, suspicious or amused according to their natures. I took a felt pen out to the sandwich board on the sidewalk and under READINGS I added “AND READINGS”.

            This unlooked-for sideline augments my writing profits, definitely helping with printing costs. My new business cards simply say “Readings”, ready for whatever interpretations and opportunities pop up. In writing, you both make your future and wait for it to break over your head in waves of fortune good, bad, mixed, and possibly unexpectedly hilarious. There are readings and there are readings. In story-telling, ambiguity is everything.

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