It’s my birthday and I’ll scry if I want to

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I was born on May 20th, 1986, making me a Taurus by astrological standards and a Tiger in the Chinese zodiac (I’m therefore a Bull-Tiger, a creature as awesome as it is fearsome). This also means that today is my 25th birthday.

My lovely fortune-telling cards

On Monday I said that I had given up reading my Tarot cards, but today I pulled them out again to check how being 25 will treat me. When I dealt out the 36 cards for a “full” reading and began to interpret their meanings, I remembered how seductive these cards are. For one thing, they are quite beautiful: unlike actual Tarot cards, my deck doesn’t include the arcana or suits and therefore the images are more stylized than pictures on the original Tarot. Also, an overwhelming majority of my cards are distinctly positive and therefore it is quite easy to interpret every reading as very uplifting.

Here are my highlights from the year ahead, just as vague and optimistic as you might expect from fortune telling cards:

  • An important man will bring good news that will lead to a significant change–don’t worry, this change will lead to great things!
  • Good omens surround your relationship, and love will continue to blossom!
  • Your career will become very important and give you great security.
  • Trust that your wisdom will allow you to handle any awkward circumstances.
  • Your road is in the hands of the gods. Everything you do this year will be blessed.
Sounds like a pretty good year, no?
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Lament of the fortune teller

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Cassandra laments her fate

Oh, mistery, misery! Again comes on me
The terrible labor of true prophecy, dizzying prelude.

They call me crazy, like a fortune-teller,
A poor starved beggar-woman – and I bore it!
And now the prophet undoing his prophetess
Has brought me to this final darkness.

Thus says Cassandra in Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon. The god Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of seeing the future with complete clarity, but because she did not return his love he then cursed her so that no one would believe her visions. The only thing worse than predicting the total ruin of your city and your own death is being unable to convince others to help avert these tragedies.

Of course, that is the paradox of a true fortune teller: if you were able to see the future in a fixed state, there would be no hope of avoiding the misfortune you would inevitably foretell. You could not, for instance, foresee an accident in your loved one’s future and be able to save that person from danger.

A Russian scientist, Igor Novikov, described a similar notion in the 1980s called the self-consistency principle that deals with time travel. He asserted that any event that would change the past has a probability of 0 to eliminate the potential for time paradoxes. For example, if someone were to travel back in time and kill his younger self, that act would prevent him from the time travel itself; Novikov’s principle rules this act to be impossible.

J.K. Rowling played with these temporal paradoxes in her third installation of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Hermione, an over-achieving student, uses a “time turner” so that she can attend more classes than time permits. At the end of the book, she, Harry, and Ron rewind time to save the life of a creature that’s already been killed and then must rescue their slightly former selves from danger. Thus this sequence of events exists in a permanent loop: the former selves must be saved before they can travel back in time, but only after the later selves travel in time are they able to be saved (this is known as a bootstrap paradox).

Coming full circle, poor Professor Trelawney of Hogwarts is another fortune teller who is rarely believed (but perhaps for good reason in her case):

How to be a fortune teller

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What you’ll need: a bunch of slightly mysterious accessories, a slightly mysterious demeanor

Songlist: Wheel of Fortune Theme SongThe Future Freaks Me Out by Motion City Soundtrack

Further Reading: Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

For spring break of my senior year of high school I went to New Orleans with some friends. We saw alligators in the swamps, ate beignets at Cafe du Monde, and went on a ghosts-of-New Orleans walking tour. Being a senior in high school, though, I had one thing on my mind: college acceptance. At that point I had only heard back from one of the eight schools I applied to, and was very anxious to find out answers from the rest. Thus, I got my fortune read.

Fortune tellers' row in New Orleans: there are an inordinate number of Lolas

My friends and I went to fortune teller row on Jackson Square in front of St. Louis cathedral. Dozens of women wearing bangles and scarves and thick eye makeup sat with their hands motioning dramatically over crystal balls. In their midst sat a clean-shaven man dressed in khakis and a white button-up shirt.

“You want your fortune read,” he said to us, calmly. I couldn’t tell if it was a question or a command (or perhaps he had read our minds! It’d be quite a feat to predict that someone wants their fortune read when wandering among fortune tellers). We sat down and he read my palm and my friend’s palm. He told me a lot about my life–all generally good, so good that I kind of tuned him out. But then I asked about colleges. He took out his Tarot cards for this one. He set out three cards for each of the eight colleges I applied to and looked over them.

“You would be very successful here,” he said, pointing at the cards for Swarthmore College, “and here you would be very creative,” pointing at Amherst. “This one would be stifling,” he said about Yale. Then he pointed at the cards for Dartmouth. “This is the college you’ll go to.” My heart leapt at those words. I badly wanted to get in to Dartmouth, and his prediction that I would attend it made me optimistic. I knew it was ridiculous to assume that I would get in because a fortune teller in New Orleans told me so, but still I hoped.

When April 1st came around that year, I found out that I had indeed gotten in to Dartmouth. I also got into a few other schools, ones that I had loved on my initial tours, but I ended up picking Dartmouth. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I’ve always wondered if the fortune teller played a role in that choice.

Okay, I got the sun again today: that's definitely good, right?

Earlier this year I started reading Tarot cards that my brother gave me for a long-ago birthday. I’d never been too interested in them before, but the first few months of 2011 were filled with uncertainty for me. I was searching for jobs and holding out hope for good news. Every morning for about two months I’d read a spread of seven cards. The prevalence of “good cards” those two months would made me think Today’s the day I’ll hear back from that interview or If I send my resume in now I’m bound to have good luck. But the good news predicted by my cards did not, in that time, come to fruition. And so I gave up Tarot. Just a month later I finally had a successful interview, and am now working at a fabulous job–all without the cards letting me know ahead of time (I say this in ridicule of my slightly former self: the future will happen whether we have sufficiently planned for it or not).

From these two anecdotes I understand that I turn to fortune telling when my future is at its haziest. This is logical, I suppose (if there’s any logic to be found in fortune telling). Fortune telling is a desire for the universe to reveal its plan, a wish for order in the compounding chaos of the future. And, in truth, there is great balm in knowing that good fortune will soon replace an unsettled present state. But life lived in constant expectation and desire of the future dims the present. And thus I’ve put my cards away–at least until I apply to graduate school.