The first time I saw a psychic, I was 19 and my friend Sandy and I drove to Jacksonville to see an old woman who read cards. We were young and it was fun going to her old house where a mist sat low around her bushes that lined the walk. In a room lit only by a single dim lamp, we each, in turn, sat at a card table. The woman's fingers were thin and gnarly, the cards were worn. One thing that I remember was she told me I should leave my first husband. It wouldn't have taken a fortune teller to tell me that if you knew him. But this old woman didn't know him.
Years later I went to Greta Alexander. A large woman who spoke quickly and looked at a photo copy of my palm. Everything she told me in my half-hour has happened, including some things that were more than thirty years into the future. She told me I that I would go "back to the books" and teach and write. Those things were impossible for me to imagine, considering I barely got out of high school with a "D" average, and I couldn't spell "cat" the same way twice. She pointed to wrinkles at the xeroxed base of my little finger and told me those were two children. From where I sat that day, there was no way I could see where I am now.
I believe in the mysteries of the Universe. I sat in many writing workshops with a Methodist minister named Herb. He came to writers', group and I tended to see his stories as allegories. He didn't know he was changing me, but it must have been the time for me to see all that is around us. About the same time, I read Stephen Hawking, who wrote an article, in 1990, that proved predestination through quantum mechanics. Herb looked at the puzzle from a spiritual or a physical perspective. Hawking wrote about it in a mathematical perspective, equations, particles and a grand unified theory. I thought between the two I might find some truth. There are forces at work in our lives that we can never understand. So it shouldn't be much of a surprise that I think some people have gifts to see things that I cannot.
But one has to be careful around such people. I'm talking about the time that Girlfriend got me cursed by a psychic in a little trailer at the Illinois State Fair. It was a hot day and we had been walking around the fairgrounds eating corn dogs and drinking lemonade shake-ups. We passed this little trailer across from the dairy building and there was a sign that said, "Your Fortune, $15." Girlfriend said, "Why don't you get your fortune told?" I shook my head and kept walking. She pushed a little further. "Come on. What's the harm?" I said, "It costs too much." She said, "I'll pay for it." So, I said, "Okay." Inside was this woman in a big chair that took up one end of the little trailer. In front of her there was a low table and a deck of cards. She told me to shuffle the cards and to make a wish. I had just finished Tales from the Levee and was looking for a publisher. I had gotten some very nice rejections with encouraging hand written letters, but no takers. So, I wished to find a publisher. The woman read the cards. I have no memory of what she told me. It's what happened next that I'll never forget. She said that if I ever told anyone what she told me, that my wish wouldn't come true.
I walked out of the trailer in a daze. What the hell? The first thing Girlfriend said to me was, "What did she say?" I told her I couldn't tell her. She kept after me and I kept declining. Finally, she said, "Well, I paid for it!" So, I told her. It took eight years to find a publisher for Tales from the Levee. I finished three other books and had them published before ". . . the Levee," the book I made the wish about, was published.
I taught freshmen and sophomores and more often than not they don't have an idea what they want to do with their lives. I tell them that I didn't even know who I was until midlife. I think many students make themselves want to go into medicine or education because that's where they've been told the jobs are. So, I tell them to find out what they love and find a way to be paid to do it. That's not as hard as it sounds. What it often involves is making a living on less income than that career their parents want for them. They often look at me like I'm nuts. Maybe I am. But I love my work. And, believe me, I have done my time in perdition, working for a boss in a local bank so abusive that I still have PTSD.
In the film Lawrence of Arabia, there's much said about predestination or "what is written." On the way to Arabia to free it from the Turks, Lawrence convinces a tribe of Arabs, the Harith, to approach the city by crossing the Nefud Desert in Aquaba, rather than attack from the sea, and by this take the city by surprise. The desert crossing is such a long way that they have to take care not dose off and fall off their camels. They didn't have enough water to back track for any reason. Then, well into the trip Lawrence (Peter O'Tool) discovers that a man named Gasim is missing, and he insists on going back for him. Sheriff Ali of the Harith (Omar Sharif) says, "Gasim is dead. It is written." Lawrence insists that "Nothing is written," and he backtracks alone. The trip is grueling, but he finds Gasim and brings him back. Lawrence is a hero. The trip continues and they meet a rival tribe called the Howeitat. Lawrence convinces their leader, Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), that they will never win Aquba as long as they see themselves as rival tribes. They need to be Arabs together. The Howeitat join them, but right away there is trouble. One of the Harith kills one of the Howeitat. A battle is about to break out and Lawrence sees quickly that if one of the Howeitat kills the Harith who is guilty, there will be retaliation. Lawrence announces that he will kill the murderer so no tribe member kills another. Lawrence faces the man; he hesitates and then empties his gun into him. Anthony Quinn asks Omar Sharif, "Why is Lawrence so sad?" Omar says, "The man is Gasim that Lawrence rescued from the desert." Quinn nods knowingly, and says "Ah. It was written."
It took me eight years to get out from under that gypsy curse and publish the Levee. I learned something important from that. The curse lost its power over me because I told myself to forget about it. After that, in a month or so, I got a contract in the mail from a publisher who'd had the manuscript for years. I thought Harrington had rejected it, but evidently not. It was the best publisher I've had. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I'd kept walking and not gone in to that trailer that day, or if I'd stood up to Girlfriend, or maybe just explained the problem to her. The thing is, sometimes you just don't know when you're at a crossroad and you've screwed up a life changing moment.
To tell the truth, Hawking ends his essay by saying "Is everything determined? The answer is, yes. But it might as well not be, because we can never know what is determined for us."
Martha Miller is a retired English teacher. She has eight books published by various publishers. The latest Me Inside by Sapphire, her favorites are Tales from the Levee, Herrington Park Press and Retirement Plan, Bold Strokes Books. She's come to love the prairie and has lived in Central Illinois all her life. You may recognize her name from old columns in the Prairie Flame. Her website is: www marthamiller.net .