Curious about the Spiritualist camp in her home town in rural New York, Rachel Dickinson dives into the teachings of Spiritualism and tries to summon her dead Grandfather—without paying extra.
I grew up in a tiny village in Upstate New York and although memory both exaggerates and dims the physical aspects of the village—like the heaves in the sidewalks and the sloping wooden floor in the Red and White grocery store—one feature of the village remains crystal clear: the Spiritualist camp with its small white cottages set among towering pines.
My family attended the Methodist Church in the center of the village. My grandmother was the church organist but my grandfather rarely attended church. He was an agricultural economist and a speechwriter for President Roosevelt during the Depression but by the time I knew him, he spent his days painting pictures and researching local history. He was a quiet man with strongly held opinions and although he died when I was very young, my aunts say I'm an awful lot like him.
When I was young, my sisters and I roamed the Spiritualist campgrounds on our Spyder bikes—sticking to the narrow gravel drive. During the summer, when the camp was full, there would be a message service in the auditorium on Thursday nights and we'd often sneak into the back of the hall to listen. But I didn't really think much about the psychics and mediums and healers and the messages they were giving to the believers on those humid summer evenings.
Now, more than 30 years later, I began to wonder what spiritualism was. I went to the county library and lugged home a sack–full of books ranging from dry–as–dust tomes on the history of modern American spiritualism to first–person narratives of encounters with the spirit world to outrageous accounts about mediums. And for a couple of months, before going to sleep, I found myself reading all about this quirky religion that uses mediums to offer proof of the existence of life after death.
I discovered that it wasn't all that surprising that we had a Spiritualist camp on the edge of the village. The religion was founded about 150 miles to the west in 1848 when the prepubescent Fox sisters first communicated with the spirit of a dead peddler. Since then, Spiritualism has gone through stages of acceptance and rejection by a skeptical public. In the early days, you were more likely to encounter physical mediums—those mediums who could make objects float, or make tabletops tip, or even project ectoplasm from various parts of their body. Eventually, mediums chose to concentrate on making connections between spirits and those on the living plane through séances, message services, and private readings.
Since the late 1960's, Spiritualism has been helped by increased interest in things that lie outside the realm of explanation and metaphysical experiences. Today, there are hundreds of Spiritualist churches throughout the United States and at least two communities—Lily Dale in New York and Cassadaga in Florida—that cater exclusively to Spiritualists.
I feel like I've had brief flirtations with Spiritualism since I was a little girl. I loved sitting in the little local Spiritualist church and looking around wondering if the old man in the next pew could see my aura or if the large woman with the booming singing voice behind me had to sing loud to drown the voices of the departed from her head.
The Basics of Your Mediumship
Finally, last year I decided to try and connect with my long–dead grandfather—the man who painted the pictures of the creek and of the waterfalls and of the birds of New York State—and I believed he would want to connect with me because we were like peas in a pod separated only by generations. So I signed up for a workshop, "Developing the Basics of Your Mediumship," at Lily Dale, the oldest spiritualist community in America.
On a hotter–than–blazes day I headed across New York State and into its far western corner where I found myself surrounded by remnants of another era. Tall, skinny Victorian cottages with postage–stamp–sized front flower gardens were jammed next to each other on narrow gravel lanes that wound through the Lily Dale grounds. Signs posted in front windows advertised the mediums who lived there. "John White, Registered Medium, Inquire Within."
The Maplewood Hotel, a large wooden building painted white where I had booked a room for $33 a night, sat near the edge of the little lake. Wicker rocking chairs lined the front porch that faced the water. A sign posted in the lobby read, "No séances, readings, or healings in public rooms." Spooky–looking images in spirit paintings hung on the wall in my bedroom and I wondered if I might have to turn them to the wall before I went to sleep.
That first night I spent some time rocking on the front porch watching the sun set behind the hill on the far side of the lake. I didn't know anybody so I was trying to read a book I had brought with me but finally gave up and just watched people wander past. Everyone was smoking and I half expected to see faces emerge in the billowing smoke that followed them down the paths.
My workshop teacher, Janet—a middle–aged woman with brown hair cut in a bob and a thick New Jersey accent—was a former nun who had been seeing the spirits since she was a little girl. She left the convent to develop the basics of her mediumship. A purist, she decided to go to England for medium training because she felt that Americans were watering down their mediumship by focusing on psychic abilities (the ability to read minds) rather than mediumistic abilities (the ability to communicate with the spirits).
Janet believed that the role of a medium—and the only role of a medium—was to offer proof of the existence of the continuation of life after death. She railed against those mediums who offered scant proof of who they were communicating with and focused solely on delivering messages from the other side. This, she said, was a medium's least important function.
Our first workshop task was to identify whether we were clairvoyant (could see a spirit), clairaudient (could hear a spirit), or clairsentient (could feel a spirit). That's when I knew I was in over my head. The rest of the class (there were about 30 of us from all over the East Coast) all had some mediumistic experience. Janet told us that it was all about feeling energy and vibrations. A living person's energy ran at a voltage of 140, she explained, and a spirit presence ran at a much higher voltage of 240. I didn't know what this meant but everyone else in the room was nodding, yes, yes.
Over the weekend I discovered that I had absolutely no facility for mediumship. In fact, it was as if I were wearing a lead–lined jacket, because I could see, hear, or feel nothing from the spirit world. "Can anyone develop this ability?" I asked.
"Yes," answered Janet. "Only it's like playing the piano. Some people can become technically very good through hard work and others are … gifted." She glanced at John Paul, the young man sitting beside me who looked like a Pre–Raphaelite model with long dark curls and a porcelain complexion. John Paul, who later gave a class demonstration, proved he had the gift.
The more I tried to open myself to communications with the spirit world, the more the spirits avoided me. "You have to have an open channel for them," said Janet. "Think of it as a two–way radio; they're sending and you're receiving." During our exercises where we were supposed to tune in to our mediumistic abilities, I looked around and saw others—eyes glazed—clearly receiving something. All I was getting was depressed.
After the workshop—and if they gave out certificates mine would have read "don't even think of giving up your day job" —I spent the next couple of days wandering around Lily Dale searching for an immediate connection to my past.
Messages from Beyond
I became a message junkie. Every afternoon four message services were held in different parts of the campground. If I walked briskly I could attend each one, traveling from the Inspiration Stump to the Auditorium to the Forest Temple and then back to Inspiration Stump. It was a like closed circuit of messages and, well, I couldn't seem to break through what felt like a force field designed to keep me out. The message services were moderated by resident Lily Dale mediums who called a succession of mediums to the front, each of whom proceeded to give two or three messages apiece. And like barkers at the circus they knew how to work the crowd.
"I see a woman in an apron and she's holding her hand over her heart," began one medium. Several people in the crowd perked up. "She's got white hair in a bun and her apron is blue." The medium looked around. "Her first name might be something like Ann or Jane."
A woman shrieked, "That's my grandmother! Her name was Annie."
"May I come to you?" asked the medium.
The pattern was almost always the same. A general statement about someone on the other side, a shriek, the acknowledgement, then a non–specific directive from the grandmother/father/mother/sister/brother about how things would get better: you'd make more money, live in a better house, be happier… in the future.
As I packed up my belongings at the Maplewood Hotel and said goodbye to the spirit paintings on the wall I thought about my frustrated trip to the other side. I knew I could have reached my grandfather if I had been willing to fork over the money for a private reading, but I wanted it for free and I was just arrogant enough to think I could somehow make that happen. I wanted my serious, introspective grandfather to reach across time and space and find me sitting in a crowd of people on the edge of a forest, all of us smoking cigarettes and waiting for the cliff notes version of our future.
Rachel Dickinson writes for a number of publications including The Atlantic, Audubon, and National Geographic Traveler. Her latest book is Falconer on the Edge: A Man, His Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West.
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