The Ren Faire and me: Divination, part 2

(This post is part of a series of ruminations on why I’m leaving the New York Ren Faire after 13 years.)

It was the palm readings that lead to my gradual disenchantment with reading at the Faire.

In 2002, I was asked to help out another reader at her booth at the Forest of Fear. The FoF is a Halloween-style haunted-house attraction held in the parking lot of the Faire during weekend nights in October. It’s a harsh environment: cold, noisy, and uncomfortable.

At the Faire, I only offered "full" readings: 20-25 minutes long. (Later, as a flagging economy forced me to cut corners, that became 15-20 minutes.) At the FoF, I offered "short" and "medium" readings, 5 and 10 minutes long respectively. As one might expect, I was mostly asked for short readings. The most frequent request was for palm readings, so I found myself flat-backing one five-minute palm reading after another, mostly for high-school kids.

I found I was saying the same things to each kid. I was not trying to be insincere or short-cut the reading. There was just such a vast gap between what the kid expected and what I was able to do in five minutes.

Slowly this effect spread to the longer palm readings, then to my tarot readings, and even to my rune readings. My divinations acquired a format, and that format turned into formula, and that formula turned into entertainment.

To understand what happened, let me explain how I performed a divination.

I approach any reading from an "air-based" perspective. I’m naturally analytical, and so are my readings. I take each element of the reading, put the pieces together, and assemble a result. (In contrast, many readers take a holistic approach, where they look for an overall impression then delve into the individual pieces.) I take the querent along with me in this process, so they understand the reasons for what I say.

To the extent that I was popular as a reader, I think it was because I explained everything to the patrons. I "de-mystified" the art of divination. They could follow my explanations, adding their own interpretation along the way, and feel they were part of the final result.

Let’s look at a typical Tarot reading as an example. I put down a card. I explain what the card means. If the card was inverted, I explain the inverted meaning. I then explain the position in the layout of the reading, and how to interpret the meaning of the card in that position. I connect that meaning with the cards that were previously laid out. After I put down the final card, I give the overall impression and interpretation. If the reading is one that merits it, I offer advice, usually in the form of working on reversing a particular card.

Eventually I found good working explanations of each card, its design, its elemental association.

So far, so good. What is not obvious to the patron is that I have to do this over and over again, for each patron who sits in my booth.

In 2004, I had the chance to get a booth of my own at the Ren Faire, and stop working for Sally. I took it. She was a good employer and a fair person, but I wanted a chance to do things my own way. Yes, I mostly took that booth out of ego. At the time, it seemed like a good idea, but in the end it proved to be a mistake.

As the years passed I decorated and improved the booth. The number of readings increased. My explanations got better, until there was little point in changing them.

My skill as a diviner improved as well, to the point that I was only explaining things for the patron, not for me. When I’d begun as a reader in 1996, I was walking with the querent as I explained the reading. Now I could put the cards down and see the result quickly: quit cheating on her; you’re stuck in your job; if you move you’ll be happier but poorer; and so on. But I couldn’t just say that; the patron would be disappointed if I didn’t walk them through the explanation. I also had to offer something to justify up to 25 minutes of their time.

That’s when it became a formula. The patrons couldn’t see it (at least, I don’t think so), but I could.

Consider these words:

"The element of fire has to do with change and transformation as it applies to your life. For example, it can have to do with artistic or creative inspiration, because an artist transforms a blank canvas to a painting, or silence into a symphony. It can have to do with any job or process that transforms the world in some way, however small: chefs, construction workers, architects, engineers; all of these are associated with fire. Up here [gesturing to my head] fire refers to those professions or jobs that change our perspective: teachers, writers, therapists, historians, sociologists, and the so-called "soft" sciences; all of these are fire. In here [gesturing to my heart] fire refers to those emotions that burn us or change us if we feel them for enough time; passion is a nice one, when it happens; anger and rage are negative fire-based emotions."

I said these words for the first Wand card that appeared in a reading, or sometimes when the Judgement card showed up before any Wand. Imagine saying that around ten times a day, along with similar descriptions for air, water, and earth. Over and over again.

Each patron learned something from those words, but I could no longer do so. I could only be gradually overwhelmed by the sameness of it all.

There are those who say that all divination is nothing more than a form of entertainment. If you’re one of them, feel free to call me a lousy entertainer. A night-club comic may have to say tell the same jokes four times a night for years in a row. To all such performers: I salute you. You’re better than I. You’ve learned whatever it takes to say the same thing over and over again, keep it fresh, and keep from getting stupidly bored or going insane.

There was another aspect to divination that I hadn’t noticed working for Sally that became clear to me when I worked from my own booth: every reading takes a certain amount of energy from you. When I worked for Sally, I was doing relatively fewer readings each day, and I hadn’t noticed this. I was doing more readings in that booth, and I noticed the energy drain. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this meant I didn’t have the energy to hang around the Faire at night and enjoy the social environment.

I want to make this clear: I am not the best reader in the world. There is still much more about divination I wish to learn. This knowledge comes from knowing about people, and I’d reached the limit of making any progress at the Ren Faire. At best, I could learn some tricks about handling energy; at worst I could become a better entertainer. As a diviner, I’d reached a plateau.

As I’ll discuss in a later post, I tried to find someone else to work at that booth with me. If someone else had been there, I could have some time during the day to restore my energy, or share the issues. Now I knew part of the reason why Sally had people working for her: to have someone with whom to chat during the day, and keep sane.

I’d learned all about divination that I could reasonably expect in that environment. 

So reason #2 for my departure from the Ren Faire: The joy of sharing the skill of divination had faded. All I could see was hours of sitting in a booth, and look forward to spiritual exhaustion at the end of the day. In the last two years of working out of a booth by myself (2008 and 2009), I dreaded going to work at the Ren Faire or the Forest of Fear

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