I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the idea of divination. Actually, I’ve always given this idea a fair amount of thought, since I tend to see symbols everywhere, not just in books but in real life, and then I try to plumb them for some meaning I can use. Recently, though, I’ve started ASKING for symbols. I’ve been learning about the colorful characters of the tarot—The High Priestess! The Hermit! The Sun!—and I’ve taken to doing a simple one-card reading for myself every morning. It’s a nice practice, a piece of quiet, thoughtful time that twinkles with a bit of magic, somewhere between the wisdom of a therapy session and the sudden secret bolt of truth that hits you in the moment you make a wish on your birthday candles.
On Friday I read that the comics artist Lynda Barry, whose work I sincerely love, has started an advice column for The Paris Review. The second question, and answer, are frankly bizarre (though the answer is also generous and funny, as all of Barry’s writing is) but the first one is Lynda Barry at her latter-day best, if you ask me. Though the letter writer is seeking advice in dealing with boredom, Barry’s answer is really about writing; writing via tricking yourself into writing, by doing oddball experiments and fun stunts that aren’t writing first.
Barry, if you don’t know, has put out three big beautiful books about writing over the last 10 years—What It Is, Picture This, and Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor— that are almost mystical in the ways that they advise the reader on how to begin this often difficult task. Every page is covered completely by a painting or a collage, and in this swirling, heady atmosphere, Barry tells us how she finds her way into creating, even when she’s stuck. In response to that question about boredom, Barry recommended elaborate project that involves chucking your cell phone out of sight, belting down a couple of stiff drinks, and going for a long and epic walk, during which you will undertake to answer some question in your mind by making symbols of three things: (i) something you see above eye level, (ii) something you find discarded or forgotten on the ground, and (iii) a person.
My husband and I went away this weekend, for a wedding in the countryside of northeast Pennsylvania near the New York state border, and we had nothing to do but loaf the day after the event. I figured this expanse of quiet Sunday would be a good time for me to try Barry’s experiment. The only changes I made were to do it throughout the course of the day, rather than during one focused walk, and I didn’t get drunk first. The question I asked the universe-slash-myself was: How should I focus my time and attention this fall? Let’s see what the universe, aka me, came up with.
i. On Sunday morning Joe and I drove up the road from where we were staying to the nearest small town, which is where my friend who got married lives. I’ve tried to imagine this town many times because my friend is also my pen-pal, and I think about the place where she lives every time I write her address on an envelope. I’ve always pictured an autumnal sort of place because of how much my friend loves Halloween, and I wasn’t totally wrong. The town turned out to be a very pretty and sturdily functional place in the manner of many towns, small and large, in this part of the state, with painted brick Victorian-era storefronts and lots of old shade trees. We walked all the way up and back its long main street, and my eyes were drawn to the spires of several churches. The one I liked the most was nestled on the top of a hill a few streets back, a big stone and stained-glass Catholic jawn that was built during the first few years of the 19th century. We followed a narrow walkway and bridge to get closer to it and just look. I haven’t considered myself Catholic, or indeed Christian, since I was released from my parents’ house 20-ish years ago, but I must say, I’ve become more interested in spirituality in recent years. Or—if not spirituality exactly, then connectedness. That’s why I’m always looking for symbols; they remind me that nothing is disconnected from anything else, even if I don’t understand why. I’m okay with not knowing why.
ii. Lynda Barry’s guidelines were pretty obviously written for a city dweller like me, but I wasn’t in Philly yesterday; I was in this small town, where very few people throw crap on the ground, or else someone is quick to clean it up if they do. I didn’t find anything meaningful to me discarded on the sidewalk during our walk, but later in the day, Joe and I got permission from the owner of the hotel where we were staying to borrow one of the rowboats to take out on the small lake. As we picked our way along the lake’s sandy shoreline near the dock, I felt dreamy with the heat and my experiment, and I saw a face in the arrangement of a few stones and a piece of wood under the water. I see faces in things pretty often, usually when I’m very tired or about to get a migraine. Seeing a pattern in something random is called pareidolia; it is commonplace and not abnormal (and apparently it’s most common for people to see faces in particular), but I experience it as slightly disturbing and maybe meaningful when it happens to me. This time, I saw the face not because I was getting a headache (thank god) but because my mind was relaxed and open and searching. I read this lake-face to mean that I should try to be in this state more often.
iii. In the evening we went back into town in search of some dinner. Only a few restaurants were open past 4:00 or 5:00 on a Sunday, and one of them was a little bar that we chose because it looked comfortable. When we walked in, I thought of the Lobo from Roseanne because of the place’s laid-back, rural vibe and prominent pool table. We took a tall table next to the bar, and sitting at the bar by himself was an old man I couldn’t take my eyes off of. He was skinny and wiry, and was wearing a black button-down shirt tucked into dark, belted dungarees, both of which were oversized on him. The jeans could properly be described as hitched up. He had a huge hawk nose and stooped shoulders, was probably in his 60s but seemed somehow ancient, and had a full head of dark hair, neatly parted. He sat at one end of the bar, facing forward, not morose or hunched over but content and bright eyed over his mug of beer. I hope someone paints his portrait in oils before he dies.
At first I felt awkward in the bar since we were from out of town and looked it, but the music playing in there was good, and after we ordered beers and I had a few sips I relaxed into being there. It only takes one drink for me to be convinced of the romance of the barroom all over again. I’m a huge cheeseball that way. “Sara” by Fleetwood Mac came on the jukebox and I crooned it to Joe. Then “Ashes to Ashes” came on and we both tapped our feet and sang along. At one point the old guy walked past us to his spot at the bar and settled back down, and Joe gestured toward him with his head and said, “He’s the one starting the music back up every time it gets quiet in here,” and I died. My favorite person at the bar liked Fleetwood Mac and David Bowie, too! Obviously he was the person I’d been looking for all day. But what should he symbolize to me? I guess the reason I lit up with delight when I saw him was because he was so completely himself, right? That’s the message I’ll let him give me, then, to be myself completely, and to remember how much fun it is to be yourself in a world that, for some reason, would like you to be something else instead. It’s the only way to live, really. At the very least, it’s a reliably good way to pass a pleasant Sunday evening at the bar.
p.s. If you’re looking for recommendations, I’ve been reading an excellent book about tarot by one of my all-time favorite writers, Michelle Tea, who just put this one out a few months ago. The book is called Modern Tarot and it’s thick, thorough, and easy to engage with.
p.p.s. The title of this post is another piece of advice I got from Lynda Barry, sort of. I saw her speak at the Free Library a few years ago, where she told a very funny story about getting her makeup done at a department store makeup counter, and how before she did this, she visited a street food truck and did what she always does when she’s nervous, which is “eat a hot dog really fast.” I laughed hard at this, and so did a man sitting near me, and his voice is what I remember when I think of that story. A stranger sounding happy.