July 8, 2005
A Town Where the Spirit World Rules
By RICH BEATTIE
AS the rays of afternoon light filtered into her comfortable reading room, Sherry Lee Calkins swept a piece of brownish chalk over a large piece of drawing paper, a dreamy look in her eye. “There’s a short man in the room, wearing a cap with a tassel on it,” she said. “He’s a Scotsman. A grandparent or great-grandparent.”
She turned her attention toward what appeared to be an empty spot on her powder-blue carpet. “What?” she asked. “Use the orange? O.K.” She put down the piece of brown chalk, picked up an orange one and began drawing again. Amorphous shapes formed on the paper as she switched to the aqua and then the green, occasionally looking off to one side to share a laugh with the invisible Scotsman.
He was the one, she told me, who was doing the drawing – he had taken over her hands.
This time I was the client, but allowing spirits to direct her artwork is something Ms. Calkins said she had done about 10,000 times in the past 18 years. And studying these drawings for clues into her clients’ pasts – and futures – has become her occupation. She’s a spiritual medium, practicing in America’s epicenter of spiritual mediumship: Lily Dale, N.Y. Spirits guide just about everything in Lily Dale, a village of colorful Victorian gingerbread houses on small, placid Cassadaga Lake, near the Village of Cassadaga in a rural corner of New York State closer to Cleveland than to New York City. Since it was founded 126 years ago, Lily Dale has been populated and run by Spiritualists, members of a religious group that combines a reverence for “the God of your own understanding” with the belief that the living can communicate with the dead.
The 40 registered mediums who practice there, in an atmosphere that is part commercial center, part religious shrine and part ghostly summer colony, don’t use crystal balls or tarot cards. They sneer at Ouija boards. They just show up, and on cue, chat with spirits.
Want to find out if Grandma is living it up in the great beyond? Lily Dale’s the place to look for her. And whether you’re a practicing Spiritualist or not, someone will be happy to help you.
“Lily Dale is to Spiritualism as Rome is to Catholicism,” said Ron Nagy, a Lily Dale historian and researcher, and a resident, as he walked on the Lily Dale grounds. Since Spiritualist groups often operate independently and practitioners call themselves by different names, like mediums, clairvoyants and telepaths, it’s hard to pin down the number of followers in America, but Mr. Nagy estimates it at around 400,000. And Lily Dale – founded when the Spiritualist movement, begun in 1848 in central New York State, was still new – is the center of their universe.
CONSULTING the spirits is an activity undergoing something of a renaissance, popularized by celebrity mediums like John Edward, a best-selling author and a regular on “Larry King Live,” and James Van Praagh, the subject of the CBS miniseries “Living With the Dead.”
It doesn’t bother the residents of Spiritualism’s Rome that some of the 22,000 people who visit them every summer are skeptics. For a $10 gate fee, anyone can attend healing services, go to seminars and watch mediums giving public readings in the summer season. And year-round, visitors come for one-on-one readings, which can cost $40 to $70.
The village, on 167 wooded acres, has about 100 year-round residents, a volunteer fire department, a library with Spiritualist books, a couple of snack bars, a bookstore, and a gift shop with a heavy inventory of teddy bears and crystals. There are also two churches that conduct healing and message services. Residents may own their homes, but the land is owned by the Lily Dale Assembly, which is run by a seven-member elected board. Lily Dale is peaceful but far from luxurious: many homes are in desperate need of repair, rooms in the Maplewood Hotel have cracked walls and no air-conditioning, and the tiny lakefront area is poorly maintained.
That matters little to visitors, who come – and come back – year after year. The vast majority are women, and though some hard-core Spiritualists make their way to Lily Dale from overseas, most guests are from New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Some simply find the woods and the lake, as well as the orange-and-pink day and star lilies, a welcome respite from city living. Some come to have a spiritual healer run his or her hands over them, supposedly to help cure mental and physical ills. Last July, about 40 people paid $30 each to listen to Lisette Larkins, a woman who says she has had face-to-face meetings with aliens aboard their space ship and now has an 11-step program for communicating with extraterrestrials. (Step No. 2: Face your fear. Step No. 3: Let go of your pain.) Her books were, of course, available for purchase.
But it’s communicating with spirits that’s at the heart of Spiritualism, and although some visitors are just looking for novelty, many hope to get messages from relatives or friends who have passed on.
Believers and skeptics walk from home to home where mediums have put out their shingles, checking rates and availability. “Your grandma’s on her third reading today,” one such stroller said into her cellphone at 11 on a summer morning.
The readings at Lily Dale don’t much resemble the stereotype played out by Whoopi Goldberg in “Ghost,” with flowing robes, turbans and table shaking. “We’re normal folks,” said Susan Glasier, a former president of the Lily Dale Assembly Board of Directors. “We just talk to dead people.”
At my reading, Ms. Calkins wore a blue and white shorts-and-top set as she conversed with the tassel-capped Scotsman. Her reading room had plain white walls, decorated only by two pictures of her daughter and one of an angel, a chair for her and a loveseat for her client. The feeling was almost clinical, as if this were a session with a therapist.
She called upon the spirit world for a good reading, leaned back and closed her eyes for a moment, then sat straight up, eyes wide. I expected questions, but aside from an occasional yes or no from me, Ms. Calkins did all the talking. After telling me about the Scotsman, she said she was sensing he had had a head injury. Did that ring a bell with me? It did not. He was a short man; were my grandfathers short men? I wasn’t sure. The chalk danced over the paper.
After several minutes, the drawing was done and she began to study it. “This large blue section, it’s a tongue: are you a great public speaker?” The blue section did sort of resemble a tongue, and I’m a fine public speaker, but it’s hardly the focus of my life. “This white space between colors – you were going through a big change around November of 2001,” she said. Yes, I was.
Sometimes she was oddly dead on, as when she told me my background was Scotch-Irish with a trace of German on my mother’s side, or when she asked me about sleep apnea, which I have. She could also be very wrong: she asked if I had been about to propose marriage five months earlier. No. “But you were very serious with someone,” she said. Wrong again. She changed the topic. At the end of the session, Ms. Calkins told me I was on the verge of realizing my dreams.
To avoid shelling out the bucks for a private reading, many visitors go to free group readings with several mediums and as many as 100 people in attendance. Not everyone gets to hear from the dead. “It’s the ones with pushy relatives; those are the spirits who get through,” said Gretchen Clark, a medium.
When a pushy relative does get through, a medium will ask someone in the crowd, “May I step into your vibration?” What happens next varies. Mediums may speak in generalities, saying, “You’ve been going through a rough time lately” or “I have an old lady here.” This approach is hardly helpful for converting skeptics, but the mediums say that’s not their job.
“We’re just serving spirit,” Ms. aid. “And it’s up to spirit how much we can see and hear. Sometimes it’s a solid form; sometimes it’s just an aura. Spirits may not give their name. They may not be able to.”
Sometimes, mediums seem to connect. Diane Cianca came from Cleveland, wondering if her brother, who had died of a drug overdose, was in a good place. At a public reading, a medium said she sensed the spirit of a man who had taken his own life, and that it was in the area where Ms. Cianca was standing. She raised her hand. The medium said she sensed that drugs had been involved and then told Ms. Cianca her brother was fine. The message brought her to tears.
In the early 20th century, Spiritualism was discredited when some mediums’ moving tables and blaring trumpets were revealed to be hoaxes. Now, Ms. Glasier said, an aspiring Lily Dale medium must pass tests including 40 public readings, 3 private readings and a public reading with the board of directors. Candidates are judged on all of these, not just on accuracy, but on how well they comport themselves. Over the last three years, she said, 12 applicants asked to hang shingles at Lily Dale and only one was accepted.
Still, mediums’ claims are often fantastic. Ms. Calkins, for example, says she is an “astral traveler”; while her physical body sleeps, she said, her spirit flies all over, and one time she was in four places at once.
Ms. Clark, the medium who says she has been talking to spirits since she connected with her dead grandmother at the age of 3, finds doubts easy to dismiss.
“Like any religion,” she said, “ours requires a leap of faith.”
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company