A cheery deathbed story by way of introduction. My dad said a couple of things to me in the hours before he passed. Three of these were direct orders, which is a total power move: Find a husband. Have a baby. And . . . tell fortunes on the beach. I don’t know what Pop was tuning into that day before he caught the last flight out of here, but he was right about the husband and the babies and my mom did teach me to read tea leaves when I was a kid. I’ve read tea leaves quasi-professionally, working parties for friends of friends, strangers who have been warned that I don’t know what the heck I’m doing but wanted me to give it a go. People like you, I hope. The result is usually something like this example taken from a reading done at a birthday party for an aging matriarch in the San Bernardino Valley.
Me: I see . . . a lot of motorcycles? (I often end my observations with questions because I have no showmanship.)
Birthday Partier: Yes! My husband and I both have Harley Davidsons.
Me, knowing nothing about motorcycles and so, barreling on: And… dental work. Just a lot of teeth?
Birthday Partier, shaking her head in dismay: Everyone in my family just had work done. It was so expensive.
Me, commiserating. A short conversation follows about how dental bills are the worst. Somehow even worse than flossing.
And that is it. I’ve shown a stranger what she already knew about her life. The “tea” is like the kids say, just gossip, but this time from the ether. And maybe that gossip is meant to make you pay attention to something in particular. The ancestors suggest a little less time on your Chopper and a little more time on the choppers. Next!
Dreams are a bit more useful, but they don’t come with many interpretive tools, no flashing lights to let you know which weirdo dream event is meant to be useful and which is the reason you should not watch Black Mirror before bed. For example, my dad in a hospital gown working a grill at the BBQ he would miss days later because he was in the hospital. There’s a terrible thing I did nothing to stop. Thanks, Universe. Or, the example that lead to the idea for this little campaign we’re running here. A dream about my editor at FSG, Jenna Johnson.
Me: Jenna, I saw you surrounded by cats. There were so many cats!
Jenna (she is extremely polite): Tupelo . . . I am more of a dog person.
Me: Jenna, please forget I ever said anything.
But then, a few weeks later, Jenna traveled to Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, she visited an art museum. In the museum, Jenna stood in an exhibit made up of hundreds of photos an artist had taken of his cat. And lo, it came to pass that Jenna was surrounded by cats. Through accident or other forces, I had a banal insight into Jenna’s future. Why? I’ve been asking myself that my whole life. If you’d like to ask why too, this is your chance. Please drink a cup of tea according to the directions below and send a photo of your leaves to firstname.lastname@example.org by August 8. I look forward to discussing them with you on live video chat on the ethereal plane known as Instagram, at 2pm EST on gods with a little g’s publication day, Tuesday, August 13. I’ll potentially tell you something you already know about yourself, we’ll talk about books and the appropriate veneration of librarians. At some point, maybe that day, maybe a year from then, your mind will be moderately blown by something I said about your tea leaves and the world will come together in almost precisely the same way it has always done except with better tea in the cupboard, better books on the shelves, and maybe just a little more confidence that the mysteries of the world attend us, whether we remember to floss or not.
Helen Dedleder, the narrator of gods with a little g, offers these instructions for tea leaf readings even as she tries to talk herself out of the future at all. Helen’s instructions happen to follow the same rules my mom taught me (small world!).
1) break the tea bag just a little bit or otherwise allow about ¼ of a teaspoon of leaves into the water
2) take your time drinking the tea, as you might during a chat
3) when the tea is almost gone, but not quite, swirl what is left in three slow circles with your non-dominant hand. Once the leaves settle, take a photo.
Anticipating your concerns thanks to my minute psychic abilities and/or being a person with free-floating anxiety and/or because I am an INFJ and corporate astrology really gets me, a FAQ:
What kind of tea can I use? Use any variety of tea you like, except gunpowder or other rolled teas (the leaves are too big and bossy), and any brand, but I hope you’ll go top shelf. The better quality the tea, the better the cut, which adds detail and shape to the images. I also say go top shelf because the stars have aligned to tell me that you deserve nice things.
Tea tastes like crap. What can I put in it? Nothing, sorry! No sugar or milk or honey, please. Enjoy this cup of tea the same way you enjoy your tea leaf readings with slightly psychic novelists over social media: not necessarily your first choice but one cup won’t hurt.
What should I drink it out of? Use whatever kind of cup or mug you like so long as there is no pattern inside and it is of a light enough color that the leaves are individually discernible. The shallower the bottom of the cup, the deeper the reading.
Should I have a question in mind while I drink the tea? Think about whatever you like as you drink. You don’t need to focus in on some burning issue. My teeny tiny ability behaves like a feral cat, I can’t direct it. Maybe it’ll share some of its mystery with us, maybe it’ll run up that tree. Maybe it’ll climb onto your shoulder and groom your hair, which you’ll find pleasant at first and then uncomfortable. This is out of my control, so, as you drink your tea, be yourself. That’s what I’m going to do.
How much of the tea do I drink? Leave enough tea in the bottom of the cup that if you were to bump it, the leaves would disrupt. (Don’t bump it.)
Should I rush the swirl? Don’t rush the swirl. If you do that, everything gets all timey-wimey and spiral-y and that rushing overrides whatever might have been underway. Remember the Pointer Sisters song, “Slow Hand”? That’s the way.
Won’t stray tea leaves get in my teeth? Yes. But it’s good luck and I promise to tell you if you have anything in your teeth when we meet, if you’ll do the same for me. See you there!
Tupelo Hassman’s debut novel, Girlchild, was the recipient of the American Library Association’s Alex Award. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Harper’s Bazaar, Imaginary Oklahoma, The Independent, Portland Review, and ZYZZYVA, among other publications. She is the recipient of the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame Silver Pen Award and the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, and is the first American to have won London’s Literary Death Match. She earned her MFA at Columbia University.