WE DID PSYCHIC readings for each other all the time. It was the ’70s. We felt stuck in the Mississippi Delta; we were restless, often bored, and not stimulated enough. Imagining the future was a way of escaping our limited circumstances.
None of us had done the hippie pilgrimage to San Francisco, but our mentor, a wise and patient older sculptor, had lived in New York and New Jersey for decades before returning to Greenville to teach art classes in what had been the family corner store. He brought a mystical perspective to our mundane frustrations — a little Plato mixed with “The Tibetan Book of the Dead.” Over many a coffee at both Jim’s Café and Brown’s Delish Shoppe, he taught me astrology; I practiced with the natal charts of all my friends. Leon could do astral projection too — I tried but could never manage to do it. So he surprised me once by recommending me to a woman who had called him for a psychic reading. The next thing I knew I was walking into her house, past her teenage kids hanging out in the front yard, and using a deck of regular playing cards to do a reading at the kitchen table. I had taught myself how to do it by making up a system to entertain friends in the spur of a moment; to my surprise, I was now discovering that it worked.
The woman was desperate to know whether her husband, who was having an affair, would come back to her. In the middle of the reading, he walked in the back door and looked at me sheepishly. I brought the reading to a close, and she never called back.
We were restless, often bored, and not stimulated enough. Imagining the future was a way of escaping our limited circumstances.
I occasionally did readings for my mother, but my father surprised me one day by saying that one of his hunting buddies wanted me to come to his house and read for him and his wife. They had bought tickets for a trip to Lebanon. I told them that they wouldn’t be going, but I didn’t know why. Shortly after, their trip was canceled due to the start of the Lebanese Civil War.
There was a clairvoyant among us named David Kain; he had been a professional crystal ball gazer in New Orleans. He used psychometry — taking something that belongs to you and holding it in his hands to get an impression. Often, he didn’t need an object. He would spontaneously weigh in, and would see omens too. But he also drank too much. I remember driving through a blinding rainstorm with him when he was high; he saw an omen, something out the window, while ignoring the obvious danger that we could hardly see the road.
I studied with an astrologer in Memphis who specialized in horary astrology, where a horoscope is based on the moment a question is asked. She also did charts for propitious times to do things. In my case, years later, that meant travel times: the time “when you leave your home and close the door behind you.” For me, it also meant the best times to pitch proposals. As a freelancer in New York, I needed every possible advantage when sending stories to editors with big slush piles. As an artist, I needed the right times to send grant applications. She would cast the chart, provide a synopsis, and sometimes give me a few caveats. My favorite travel time was for a trip to Europe after I’d received a grant in photography. She said it was going to be full of amazing and colorful adventures, and aside from the moment my camera fell apart in Zurich, it lived up to the forecast. A few years later, I booked a trip to London so impulsively that I forgot to check with her first. I was invited to house-sit over the holidays, and my friend left me with a dying dog and an unexpected roommate who was chattering nonstop, on cocaine. Bad experiences can be memorable, but I wouldn’t choose them.
When I first went to the shaman in Mexico, he asked why I had come. ‘To be closer to the spirit world,’ I said. ‘Then you will be,’ he responded.
A student in one of my photography classes mentioned that his mother was the card reader to a Polish community in Brooklyn, near where I lived, so I got her number and became a regular client. She’s been remarkably accurate in my visits over the past 20 years. Sometimes she sees something that has little wiggle room; she’ll specify when things are more open and puts the likelihood in percentages, such as a 75 percent chance of happening, or 50/50, or almost certain. I asked her once about the sale of my mother’s house in Mississippi. I had been put in charge by my older siblings, though I was the farthest away. She saw a problem. The sale would be held up because, she told me, “The house doesn’t want to be sold.” She knew that I was in touch with a shaman in Mexico City and told me to check with him to see what he could do. After sending him pictures of the house and yard, he agreed there was a spirit interference and asked me to do certain rituals at the site. Not living there, I had to persuade a cousin to go by to burn candles and make an offering. “Even so, it will take a while,” the card reader told me. It took six months, but the last offer was also the highest, and the buyers, a young and growing family, were a perfect fit for the property.
When I first went to the shaman in Mexico, he asked why I had come. “To be closer to the spirit world,” I said. “Then you will be,” he responded, giving me a candle and further instructions. A few years later I came back and he told me I’d gone too far; I had attracted so many spirits that I needed to burn sage in my apartment and do a clearing.
I guess I feel unlucky. Left to my own devices, I would go down rabbit holes of obscure folly. Propitious times keep me on track. David Kain’s mother once read my palm: “You’ll live a long life, honey, but you’ll never get what you want.” She had been drinking when she said it, but still. String theory has theorized 11 dimensions. Physics has caught up with the occult, but I am happy for it to linger in the mysterious, “irrational” margins, in the world of uncanny insights and mystical phenomena.
Allen Frame Writer
Allen Frame is a photographer and writer based in New York. His book “Fever” contains previously unpublished color photographs made in New York in 1981 (Matte Editions, 2021). His photographic work from Italy, “Innamorato,” will be published this year by Meteoro Editions. He is a winner of the 2017–2018 Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, and has been the curator of numerous exhibitions, including “Love and Jump Back: The Photography of Charles Henri Ford” (Mitchell Algus Gallery, New York, 2020), and the first retrospective of the work of Darrel Ellis (Art in General, New York, 1996).
Vicki Ling Illustrator
Vicki Ling is a freelance illustrator currently based in New Orleans. Her clients include the New York Times, AFAR magazine, Morningstar Magazine, Trix Magazine, Warner Music, and the Swatch Group, among others.