For several years when I was about middle-school age, my family would go at Christmastime to a local church that put on an elaborately staged production of A Christmas Carol.
This production not only adapted the story into a musical, but also turned it into a musical with an explicitly evangelical Christian theme. The conceit was that Scrooge, rather than seeing the error of his miserly ways after his three ghostly visitations, instead accepts Jesus into his heart as his Lord and Savior and wakes up on December 25 as a born-again Christian.
Even today, as a precept-following Buddhist, I have to admit that, for its purpose and audience, it’s a pretty brilliant take on the material.
My father, raised Catholic by first-generation Polish parents, had at some point started attending the evangelical Christian church my mother had long belonged to. (Though I’m not sure where and how my mother got there since my maternal grandparents weren’t terribly religious.) My mother died in 1987, and I have to believe that that event wove us even more firmly into the community of that church, especially given how much they did for us during the year or two that she was dying of cancer.
My father’s brother and sister and their children—my cousins—all remained more or less devout Catholics, so my siblings and I were always slight outcasts among our clan. We didn’t get First Communion parties and were exempt from Midnight Masses. However, we never had that many friends our own age at my dad’s church, despite multiple years of attending Vacation Bible School for a week during the summers and the fits and starts of attendance at early morning Sunday school when my father, a gigging musician who often played late on Saturday nights, could get us all up early enough to ferry us there on time. The church was truly most important for my dad as a social group and support network. There was even a woman there, another single parent, whom he sort of dated for a while. Though he never defined their relationship as such to us, I hated her viciously anyway.
In subsequent years, he became more and more involved with the worship music at Sunday services, playing keyboards in the praise band as the music choices began to drift away from more traditional hymns played on piano and organ toward the kind of light pop that called for more elaborate instrumentation. He had consummately good taste and a short-fuse temper, which was sort of a hilariously bad combination in that context. Though never the actual worship leader, he essentially ran their Wednesday night rehearsals, putting the band through its paces and cursing them out when someone was playing lazily or sloppily, the way he would with any other musician in a jazz band or musical theater orchestra. As I grew older, this behavior embarrassed me terribly on his behalf, but his fellow musicians, aside from the occasional frustrated remark or rueful shake of the head, always insisted that they appreciated his perfectionism and were grateful for his attempts to turn them into better players, so that they could then, in turn, give greater glory to God.
So, the fact that we made trips to see this Christian version of A Christmas Carol for so many years in a row really meant something—it meant that it was really, really well done. My father was also deeply sentimental and liked to do the same rituals over and over, year after year, so it was a given at that time in our lives that we would all attend this show as part of our holiday traditions.
The church that put on the show was maybe 25 minutes away from where we lived, in a town we didn’t have much reason to go to otherwise, so even though the drive wasn’t that long, there was always a sense of occasion to our yearly pilgrimage there.
In the early ’90s, my dad had officially given up the huge, boxy full-size van that he’d used for years to cart musical gear to and from gigs, in favor of a more manageable and comfortable minivan with sufficient seating for me and my brother and sister. Though I usually rode in the front seat if it was just the four of us traveling together, I’d have to cede the place if there was another adult, like one of my three living grandparents, coming along with us. Since my dad loved introducing people to this version of A Christmas Carol and thus we often were driving new attendees to the show, my memories of driving to and from this church are predominantly of my sitting in the inky darkness in the back of the minivan, bundled into my winter coat but still shivering against the frigid air. Christmas music would be playing softly on the stereo and whatever conversation might be occurring would feel light years away from my little nest. I would stare out the window at the passing lights of streets I only dimly recognized and would occasionally smell the heavenly scent of greasy fast food billowing on the cold night air.
These trips in the van always felt removed from regular life, but also curiously suspended, coherent, since they were, for a time, a yearly constant, unique unto themselves. And even though there is now scant evidence available (that I can find online, at least) that this show ever existed, and even though my own Dickensian Christmastime traditions favor Great Expectations over A Christmas Carol (that opening scene of Pip in the graveyard on Christmas Eve is as indelibly a part of me as if it had been a real life event), I find myself referring back to this cluster of memories more than I might expect. Not out of nostalgia, really; more like opening the oven door periodically to see if the muffins are done baking yet. I keep waiting for this strange combination of sense memories to cohere into something solid, something that will sustain and nourish me.
Cold air. Nighttime drives. Holiday anticipation. A warm theater. A lovingly produced performance. My father’s standards of excellence. A spiritual lens on a familiar story. Seasonal predictability. Cherished art to share with family and friends.
Is it selfish to want to form a more definite story out of these events and impressions? Is there something a little pushy about wanting to force them into some kind of digestible narrative or anecdote?
Maybe it’s actually OK that these memories don’t quite cohere. Maybe they’re best left as clusters, as constellations, the space between them leaving room for me to trace a line that creates a shape that exists only in my mind’s eye. Maybe this vague shape suggests, instead of a specific lesson, a useful mythology.
For as long as I’ve considered myself a religious adept or metaphysical practitioner or healer or clairvoyant or whatever other term might apply to my spiritual studies and striving, I’ve secretly longed for my will to be obliterated.
I’ve longed for a spell or charm or prayer that would achieve its intended effect without any involvement from me.
Through a strange combination of both skepticism and deep credulity, I’ve wanted to see incontrovertible results that would override my need to believe in them. I approached each new technique or discipline with a wide-eyed hope that this would be the puzzle piece that had been missing from my belief system so far, that finally I’d found the thing that would not only work but would, in working, validate my deep desire to know that magic still exists in the world. And that I could access that magic if given the right tools.
Of course this is all bullshit—but not for the reasons you might think.
Yes, magic exists and can be made through a variety of different avenues.
The key, though, is that I have to work it. I have to expect it to work, and hold space for that expectation to come to fruition, and acknowledge my role in making it happen. It’s not that I’m forcing it to happen, or lone-wolfing it. The process is indeed co-creative, in the sense that the magic cannot flow without me. I’m the portal through which it enters my world.
Every time I’ve sat down to meditate or conjure, I’ve unintentionally handicapped myself by splintering off a part of my valuable attention by thinking, “ooh, OK, I wonder if this is really going to do anything?” And that subtraction of energy has killed, or at least seriously diminished, the effectiveness of nearly everything I’ve ever hoped to achieve through my self-directed energy work. Not because of the skepticism, necessarily—but because, in some sense, I force-quit the program before it had a chance to fully boot up. I withheld the resources from the endeavor and then sat back with a mixture of disappointment and resignation when nothing happened.
To use a lame and overextended metaphor: “I planted this seed in the ground, but gave it no water or sunshine. What the fuck, seed? I guess you weren’t ever going to work in the first place, were you?”
I’m not sure when or how or why I started to see the error of my ways more clearly, but it seems incredibly obvious to me now why I’ve been struggling for so long. And it’s not only obvious, but actually exciting, in that I realize now how much power this is giving back to me. Or, not even giving back, just properly illuminating.
If magic doesn’t work without my energy added to it, what does that say about the quality of my energy?!
So, my friends, from my magical little corner or the world to yours, I say to you: declare your independence from any system that robs you of your own inherent power or makes you doubt its effectiveness in any way. Celebrate your freedom to create a life as beautiful and magical and gorgeously improbable as you can imagine.
When I was going through my yearlong training to become a clairvoyant reader, one of the fun games I started playing for my own amusement was, any time I was at a concert, to look at which chakra was most dominant in the different musicians.
In case you don’t know, or just need a refresher, we all have seven main chakras that roughly correspond to the following:
1st: at the root of the spine–safety, survival, security, grounding
2nd: around the belly button–sensuality, sexuality, emotions
3rd: at the bottom of the ribcage–male/female energy distribution, will/workspace, power center
4th: heart–love, oneness, affinity
5th: throat–the ability to communicate with oneself and others, clairaudience, telepathy
6th: third eye (center of your head)–vision, clairvoyance, the ability to see and be seen
7th: crown (top of the head)–connection to one’s higher self, connection to God, sense of knowingness
In my years of observation, most drummers and bass players are going to be operating from the first and second chakras–keeping the rest of the band grounded, but also keeping the swing funky and sexy. However, I’ve also seen highly idiosyncratic drummers like Billy Ficca of Television or Brian Blade operating from their fifth charkas–bringing a voice or eloquence to their beat-making, beyond just keeping a simple pulse.
Guitar players, especially lead electric players, are often associated with the third chakra–it’s all power, will, and dominance. But I’ve also seen someone like Nathaniel Braddock, an extremely cerebral and intelligent player, work entirely from his crown. Tom Verlaine, at least when I saw him play recently, works from his fourth chakra, not so much as an expression of love like we might normally think of it, but as an expression of his identity and oneness with the music/his instrument.
Sax players and lead vocalists are typically fifth chakra players, which makes perfect sense–they are the voices of their bands, communicating from the front of the stage, getting the songs’ melodic ideas across to the crowd. I’ve also seen, for example, the former lead singer of the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International sing from his heart chakra with a pure force of love that felt absolutely revolutionary.
Classical music is another ball of wax entirely, but just to continue with my very general overview, orchestra conductors tend to be working from their seventh charkas exclusively, albeit with very different flavors. Typically the crown chakra is the seat of one’s seniority; if you’ve ever started talking or acting like a friend when you find yourself in close quarters with them, you’re probably matching to the energy that she is running in her crown. It’s obviously handy for orchestra members to be resonating as a unit in this way, so it’s important for a conductor to set a tone and offer his or her crown chakra as a kind of beacon to follow. Which sometimes can have unexpected consequences.
A few years ago I saw a guest conductor at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who was clearly operating as some sort of channel or medium for these CRAZY high-pitched energies that almost felt extraterrestrial. As the orchestra was tuning up that night, it felt like they were in a panic, trying to ratchet themselves up to his level of nerve-jangling intensity. It was a much, much higher level of energy than the average person would be able to sustain for any length of time.
Whereas a guy like Esa Pekka-Salonen conducts from his seventh chakra not as a way to channel anything spacy, but as a way of looking into the future, to keep pushing the art form forward.
So, that’s just a quick summary of one way I play with my clairvoyance when I go out to concerts. But it can certainly also be done in other contexts–I’ve “read” at art museums (both individual works of art and whole exhibits) and even though I’m not sporty at all, I’m sure reading athletes at a sporting event would be terribly interesting as well.
Looking at energy this way started as not much more than a way to practice my developing psychic skills. But now it’s a fun way for me to add a level of depth to my experience as an audience member–almost to feel like I’m participating in the show in some way. It’s also a good reminder for me, as a performer, that it’s foolish to try to tamp down or mask my own dominant energy center(s). The audience, whether they would realize it or know how to articulate it or not, will always see/feel what I’m actually doing.
If you are a writer, musician, or other creative type and are curious about your own dominant chakra, click here to schedule a 60-minute aura reading with me. You can find out more about my other psychic services for creatives over here. You can also join my mailing list here.
A couple years ago, while I was still in clairvoyant training, I was preparing to take a quick trip to Spokane, Washington, to visit some friends for a long weekend. I asked a couple different teachers if they had any pointers for navigating the airport as a psychic.
I was secretly hoping I’d get some fancy tips on manifesting a first-class upgrade, sailing through security, or simply creating a vibe where I could have more fun with the experience.
“Just don’t go into resistance,” nearly all of them told me.
Meaning, don’t get mad, don’t try to control what’s happening, don’t try to force your own agenda into the energies of the space, don’t get miffed if the TSA agents are rude or if the people in line around you are snotty, don’t go into a huff if the schedule gets out of whack. Just go with the flow, as it were. Maintain the integrity of your own energetic space without allowing it to get mixed up with whatever craziness may be occurring around you.
I was subtly disappointed by this commonsense advice, but—I still think about it every time I go to the airport now.
Though an infrequent flyer overall, I’ve always had what I took to calling Good Airport Karma. Nothing fancy, no red carpet treatment—just smoothness and ease.
For a long stretch of time, whenever I would have an opportunity to travel by plane, everything went my way. On-time departures and sometimes even early arrivals. Never lost a piece of luggage. No chatty seatmates oversharing intimate details about their lives. No canceled flights because of bad weather and no getting bumped because of overbooking.
Granted, I traveled seldom enough that the odds were generally in my favor, especially considering most of my trips were taken during off-peak times of year.
But it felt like more than that. It was like, simply because I was confident that I could get in, get out, and get on with my life without any strain or struggle . . . I did.
The shadow version of this theory could be interpreted as things going smoothly for me because they had to. It was nonnegotiable. My inability to deal with anything more chaotic or difficult would have sent me into a spiral of failure and panic (picking up, in some sense, where my father’s inability to deal with out-of-left-field contingencies and mix-ups left off). So, somehow, somewhere, a wise and benevolent force in the universe made sure that my plans came together like clockwork. Taking pity on me, giving me the easy way out.
But choosing to look at it from a more forgiving perspective, I see that it was probably more my pure joy in getting to go out and have an adventure that set the tone for so many years of happy experiences.
Until recently. As I’ve energetically bought into the post-9/11 notion that air travel is utterly lacking in glamour, convenience, and ease, I’ve found myself starting to get a bit queasy about trips to the airport.
In the days and weeks before a trip, my thoughts about the imminent departure would start to get polluted by dread. Dread of the indignities of security screenings. Of increasing anxiety about my physical safety while in the air. Of the great, heaving irritation that comes with forced physical proximity to people whose conversations I didn’t want to be obliged to overhear or whose knees I didn’t want to feel through the seatback behind me.
And perhaps it’s no coincidence that the delays and hassles that I’ve encountered have increased accordingly. As the energy of adventure has been sucked out of my travels, I’ve allowed the culture’s prevailing narratives of suspicion, condescension, and breakdown to set the tone for the way I move through the airport.
And that’s why, until I can truly reclaim my own magical ability fly with freedom and joie de vivre, I’ve really clung to this helpful notion of non-resistance. It gives me more room to be in the present moment, without mentally calculating how much time I’ve wasted in line, how long it’ll be until I arrive, or how annoying it’ll be to do it all over again on my way back home.
It also helps me interact with airport personnel and even my fellow travelers with more compassion; if I’m less focused on my own irritation and agenda, I can meet others from a place of friendliness and empathy, rather than viewing them all as jerks that I want to dissociate myself from.
I still struggle more than I’d like to admit with doubting the rightness of my own thoughts, feelings, opinions, and worldview. If challenged (or even if I’m just imagining being challenged) in regard to something I’ve said or something I’ve expressed an interest in doing, my instant default is never to stick up for myself or defend my position—it’s to assume that I’m wrong and that the person doing the questioning is right.
The assumption becomes that they can see something about my stance that I can’t and are therefore correcting a mistake I’m making before it turns into some cataclysmic blunder. (You can see how this lead to an increasing hum of anxiety during my service at the Buddhist temple where correction was a constant fact of life that could never be questioned.)
And so that’s why the slow creep of pessimism into my inherent talent for travel has been so pernicious. Without consciously realizing it, I’ve traded my own effortless grace for someone else’s sense of struggle and tension, under the guise of accepting “well, that’s just the way things are.”
I’ve decided that it’s time for me to reassert the fact that I’m actually not wrong for having the ability to coast through travel situations that can be stressful for other people. It’s time for me to remember that on the other side of non-resistance is the ability to clear competing narratives out of my energy field in order to make space for my own truth to take me where I want to go.
I don’t deny or minimize that this has been an exceptionally difficult winter.
The snow. The cold. The stir-craziness. The SAD. The coughs and sniffles and sore throats. The crazy drivers on the unplowed streets. The extra bodies squeezed onto too few train cars. The relentlessness of it all.
It’s hard. It affects me too.
But walking home from the train after work a week or two ago, looking up into the inky black sky of, oh, 6 pm, I glanced at the moon and suddenly remembered.
The moon. The dark. The cold.
It’s all very much the yin to the sunny, bright warmth of summer’s yang.
Or, from a more mystical perspective, it’s the feminine half of the year counterbalancing the masculine half. It’s the season when we’re invited to slow down — a lot. And look at what a struggle it’s been for so many of us.
Our overdriven impulse to keep producing and participating at top speed is in direct opposition to how nature itself is compelling us to feel and behave. We grimace and complain about how hard it is to get up in the morning or how little we want to do in our spare time on nights and weekends. As if any of that is a problem! This has always been the time of year for rest and introspection and solitude. We do ourselves a disservice to fight it.
We do ourselves a disservice when we ignore the call to be still, to live in the mystery.
Even in such a seemingly small way, it’s important to push back as much as we can against the pervasive cultural imperative to privilege the more traditionally masculine modes of expression and behavior. If left unexamined, it’s easy to fear the power of darkness because it’s so feminine, so elusive. But, our worth and our priorities can’t be exclusively tied to how much we can do, how much we can achieve. These qualities have to be balanced with a healthy respect for quiet receptivity and an intentional honoring of the times when we’re not doing much of anything at all.
So I’m trying to be mindful of all that myself right now. Instead of resisting the slower pace and colder temperatures and lack of visible progress in my life, I’m doing my best to notice the moments when my body wants to stop moving, when my mind wants to wander off into uncharted territory. I’m making more space to be OK with my life feeling a little mysterious, even a little unhinged. There will be plenty of time in months to come to reengage with achievement and activity, when progress seems easier to manifest.
But for now I am claiming space for sleep, for contemplation, for my darker emotions, for my ability to let thoughts and fancies percolate below the threshold of my conscious awareness.
I recently attended an astral body healing workshop, and the instructor told us that she’d left her day job not too long ago. I forget now the exact words that she used, but she said something to the effect that she did so in order to have more time to care for things.
And that phrase hit me like a ton of bricks.
The notion of having more time in one’s day in order to more deeply care for things just sounded like the most obvious, sanest, richest way to live.
Like so many people, I’m prone to overwork. This fact is also exacerbated by my tendency to feel overly responsible for other people and their agendas instead of my own. And when my schedule starts getting packed and the pace of my daily life gets frantic, I find that I start to half-ass things.
And I don’t just mean that I start making silly mistakes, like typos and miscalculations (though that’s certainly a part of it). I also mean that I start half-assing my interactions with other people. I don’t attend deeply enough to conversations, I don’t take the time to remember to be kind, I spend less time interacting with any one person, instead spreading my attention out to perhaps dozens of people so that no one ends up feeling a sense of satisfaction about our encounters (least of all me).
It’s a quietly soul-deadening way to live.
I am an ambitious, multitalented person, so it’s in my nature to want to do a lot of different things. (Not for nothing do my personal business cards read “writer, editor, musician, clairvoyant.”) So, clearly, I’m in no way advocating, least of all for myself, a life of unstructured wandering.
But this idea of having time to care for things suggests a different kind of spaciousness. It’s a spaciousness that somehow feels directly related to whatever sense of mission I may have on this planet—which, as close as I can tell, is just to love. To spread love, to experience love, to cultivate love, to shower people and things with love, to be love.
Like I’ve mentioned previously, I operate as an empath, so that desire to love more deeply can often get used against me if I’m not mindful of separating myself out from other people’s thoughts and emotions and energies. It’s easy for me to get sucked into providing advice, support, and resources in ways that leave me feeling drained, mistaking those efforts for love. (I’m reading Doreen Virtue’s book Assertiveness for Earth Angels: How to Be Loving Instead of “Too Nice” right now, and it’s promising to be a game-changer for me.)
But when I’m operating from my own personal power, and not acting as a doormat, it stands to reason that I would be able to make good use of some more time and space to care for things in the ways that I genuinely want to. It’s the best argument I’ve heard yet for saying no to activities, invitations, expectations, and commitments that are well and truly optional.
We all have those splinter spots in our lives where, if we’d gone in another direction, the trajectory of our lives would have been radically different.
One of my favorite takes on this concept comes from Hawaiian shaman and author Serge Kahili-King. In his book Changing Reality, he talks about working with and sending healing energy to a parallel version of himself:
Just before I was discharged from the United States Marine Corps, I was confronted with two major choices: to go home to finish my education and marry the woman I loved, or to buy a boat with a friend and sail the South Pacific. Well, in this life I made the best choice and I’m still happily married. Years later I decided to explore the alternate choice in the context of a parallel life and discovered myself dead drunk in a bar in Samoa. Years later I went again and found myself dead. Years after that I went into the same parallel life a few minutes before dying, convinced myself to make some better choices, stopped drinking, and continued with a more productive life in that parallel experience.
I tend to think about my own splinter points a lot, mostly because I think they would have taken me to some similarly self-destructive places.
One of the big things I didn’t mention in my post about my long-distance relationship with my high school boyfriend who moved to L.A. is that, the year after he left, I applied to the same program that he was in. And, I got accepted. I was over the moon about the idea of skipping my senior year of high school and going to live in L.A., without really stopping to consider if, y’know, I actually wanted to go live in L.A. It was purely a means of escape. I wanted out of Indiana and out of my father’s house. I wanted into the more glamorous, worldly, sophisticated, urban life that I thought I should be living.
Ultimately, though, I couldn’t afford it. When I finally was able to review my financial aid package, and compared it against my own meager savings and what my father would be able to contribute to fancy out-of-state tuition, it was clear that it just wasn’t going to happen. I returned to my high school for my senior year, abashed, my tail between my legs.
Years later, when I was finally able to joke about the situation, I often liked to say that it was for the best that I never went out there, because I just would have developed an expensive drug habit. Now, aside from some very cursory and mild experimentation in my 20s and early 30s, I’ve never had much interest in drugs, so I don’t really know where that conjecture is coming from. Is it just a joke? A piss-take on what supposedly happens to innocent Midwestern girls who get taken in by the City of Angels?
Or is it an admission that some part of me knew I wouldn’t have been happy out there? A sinking feeling that if I had gone despite the money problems, I would have wound up self-medicating to manage the stress of that wrong decision? It’s probably worth a meditation or some dreamwork at some point to try to explore and discern. I have a feeling that that other version of me, wherever she is, could probably use some love and encouragement.
My other main splinter point comes just a few years later, when I’d interviewed for an internship at a well-known entertainment magazine in New York City. My interview had, earlier in the summer, been scheduled for what turned out to be two weeks after 9/11. Though of course there’s the chance they wouldn’t have given it to me anyway, I sometimes fancy my chances were reduced, in that understandably hyper-I-[heart]-NY time, because I didn’t already live in the city. In the alternate reality where I did get the gig and did move to New York, though, what would have become of me?
I don’t have a funny, pat answer for this one. Mostly because, more than 10 years on, I’m relieved I didn’t end up shackling myself to the vicissitudes of entertainment journalism. (I thought I wanted to get into it to write pop film criticism, but, let’s be real—I would have been working in entertainment journalism.) As my interest in writing straight-up film, music, and TV reviews waned throughout my twenties, and as I grew more and more exhausted with the idea of keeping up with their various hype cycles, I was so glad that I had the freedom to let my essays about those things just die off naturally on my old blog, since I had no other real professional imperative to keep up with any of it.
However, I remain tantalized by the more recent revelation that I could have met my current boyfriend way back in 2001/2002 if I had moved to New York. Between his own contingent life possibility where he could have opted to go to NYU for grad school and the actual reality that, commuting back and forth from Connecticut, he was spending a lot of time in the city making art with his experimental theater friends, there’s a small but distinct possibility that we would have run into each other a good seven or eight years before we finally did in Chicago.
The possibilities multiply exponentially from there. If we had met, would we have liked and fallen for each other? Would we have tacked those extra years on to our romance? Or were the intervening years that it took for us to come together actually necessary to our development as people, so that when we finally did meet, we were really and truly ready to become such good friends and collaborators and eventually lovers? Without the benefit of the different paths we ended up taking, alone, during the bulk of the ’00s, would we just not have clicked? Would we maybe have recognized some glimmer, some spark, between us as spirits, then been unable to build on it or pursue it?
Romantically, I prefer to imagine that of course we would have found a way to come together, but really, it’s anybody’s guess what might have happened, given where we both were in our lives at the time. I could just as easily have missed out on this relationship that warms my heart so much, all because I would have been in the right place for my ego but the wrong place for my soul.
Though I often give myself a hard time for what I perceive as a lack of glamor and adventure in my current life, maybe I need to make peace with the fact that this version of my life is the right one for me after all. It seems like the choices between L.A. and New York are sort of my own personal Goldilocks and the Three Bears moments—too hot, too cold—whereas Chicago has turned out to be, basically, just right.
As mentioned previously, I went into traditional talk-therapy in the summer of 2004.
In keeping with the general trend toward serendipity in my life, I had my first session with my therapist one week before my father had a massive stroke.
My guardian angels, as it were, had clearly lined things up for me so that I would have a solid support system in place during that crucial, challenging time.
After a little while, knowing how lonely I was, my therapist encouraged me to look for a spiritual community to join. I knew it would be good for me but was nervous, as I always am, about throwing myself into a new system where I didn’t yet know the ropes.
I attended a Science of Mind service in a conference room in a chain hotel here in Chicago, and just . . . no. It was totally not the kind of place I needed to be.
Living northward on the brown line, I could see from the train a building that had a giant sign painted on the side advertising meditation classes. I couldn’t read all the text, but with some creative Googling, I eventually found the website for the place.
They were starting one of their five-week introduction to meditation courses that following week, so I signed myself up for the session. After the five weeks were up, I remember thinking to myself with almost a shrug, “well, I guess I’m just going to start going there on Sundays now.” And, I did.
Slowly integrating myself into the membership of the temple, I started showing up regularly for Sunday services, and sometimes for their special Wednesday night meditation sittings as well. I even signed up for two days of my first-ever silent retreat later that winter, which was an exercise in fortitude like nothing I’d intentionally put myself through before.
Basically, a silent retreat is just hours and hours of meditation every day, with breaks here and there for food, stretching, walking meditation, and work practice—aka, chores—all done in complete silence with extremely minimal eye contact among the practitioners. My brain felt like it started to eat itself at some point, and I remember thinking, “well, it’s too bad I can never come back here ever again after this is all over.”
But, of course, I made it through the rest of the retreat, and of course I came back to the temple again. In fact, I felt more part of the community than ever after that.
Within the next year I was asked to be on the temple’s advisory council, which meant that I would help out with extra chores around the building, help with fundraising efforts, stand at the door as a greeter before Sunday services, and generally be closer to the heart of the regular goings-on of the community. As an editor, I was even pressed into service to help assemble their periodic newsletter.
As I bonded with my fellow advisory council members, it felt like I was Doing a Good Thing for myself spiritually, even though I also learned to swallow the anxiety that resulted from knowing I’d inevitably be corrected by the temple priest for doing something wrong—putting the dishes in the wrong place in the kitchen, arranging the meditation mats and cushions out of their proper order, calculating tax incorrectly on the haphazardly priced items available for sale in the bookstore.
I wanted so badly to prove to myself that, yes, it was good for me to be part of this community, that I assented to being on the advisory council for a second year in a row. But, about halfway through my second term, I started a yearlong training program to develop my clairvoyant reading abilities. I was able to juggle both the temple and psychic school for a while, but as my commitment to the advisory council started winding down, I found that I was getting crabbier and more lackadaisical about my remaining commitments there.
I just had too many things going on in my life—this was all in addition to a 40-hour-a-week job, band practice, and making time for my then-boyfriend—and something had to give. I needed at least one morning a week to sleep in and relax, and since I was usually scheduled for practice readings at psychic school on Saturday mornings, that meant Sundays at the temple got jettisoned.
I’d given so much to it and wasn’t sure what I’d gotten in return. I didn’t want to be mercenary about it, of course, but the more I felt sucked dry by their expectations for generous donations of time and attention, the more I was feeling myself sliding into a familiarity-breeds-contempt kind of attitude. I wasn’t too sorry to let it go.
I was also ready to take a break from the hovering cloud of judgment that always made me feel like I was doing something wrong (or worse, like I wasn’t doing enough). And, it was a relief to disengage myself from the subtle sense of competition that always seemed to arise among the other members—sly jockeying over who could sit longer or do more prostrations or who was having a more pure and transcendent feeling of oneness during meditation.
I attended a few more services here and there, but ultimately just stopped going altogether late in the spring of 2011.
I completed my year of clairvoyant training just a few months after that and then rolled into two more consecutive six-month-long programs at psychic school, which pulled me further and further away from not only the temple’s Sunday services but their whole philosophy as well.
In the summer of 2013, finished with all my clairvoyant schooling for the time being, I thought it might be a good time to dip my toes back in the waters of Zen meditation. I decided to visit a different community one Sunday morning and was startled by how viscerally I ended up hating it.
I wrote in my journal later that night:
I think I’m done with Zen-style meditation for a while. Aside from all the bullshit, California-macho male energy and my complete lack of interest in hearing anything an old white guy has to say about anything spiritual anymore, and aside from the total lack of joy in the way the discipline is being practiced, I think the thing that became most apparent to me is that I’m no longer interested in a spirituality that makes me smaller. I don’t need any help forbearing unpleasant circumstances. I am a maestro at sitting patiently and quietly until something that I hate finally comes to a conclusion. I’ve lost more than enough time to that kind of behavior, and I don’t need a spiritual discipline that’s telling me to do that on a regular basis.
That was several months ago at this point, and I’m nowhere near having any kind of answers or any better sense of where I want to go, spiritually, next. I’d like to be giving professional psychic readings on a more regular basis, and I’ve developed my sub-site here in order to start to attract more readees. But, that clearly will still be a solitary pursuit, even when I do get it up and running.
I’m still, as I noted last week, looking for my sublime tribe.
I’ve been noticing more and more lately that the answer to so many problems in my life is that I just need more of me, of my own life force and energy back in the mix. So, I’m fully open to the idea that instead of looking for a tribe, I should instead be looking for ways that I can show up for myself more powerfully.
And maybe that’s the wisdom I was attracted to in the Zen center in the first place—having the time and space to sit quietly in the fullness of myself, surrounded by dozens of other people doing the same.
It’s hard for me to be out about my psychic skills and spirituality in my everyday life.
Despite the current trend toward all things witchy and woo, it’s a trend that I mostly see and participate in online. With definite exceptions, it’s not especially reflected in my daily friendships and associations.
Though many of my oldest and closest friends are intensely spiritual, their spirituality is often centered around Christianity. And though there are many aspects of Christianity that I still resonate with—particularly when it comes to social justice—I personally have always felt more drawn to Eastern philosophies and mysticism. Which, living in Northwest Indiana until my early twenties, meant that I gained most of my information about these traditions through books.
After I moved to Chicago, I certainly had more and better access to all kinds of Buddhist temples and meditation centers, and eventually felt myself pulled toward expanding my psychic abilities, learning reiki healing, and working with crystals. Recently I’ve also been devouring Doreen Virtue’s books on angels, goddesses, and fairies; Sera Beak’s impassioned explorations of the (re)emerging Divine Feminine; Serge Kahili King’s wonderful writing on the Hawaiian Huna tradition; and the idea of “core shamanism” as defined by Tom Cowan in his excellent book Shamanism as a Spiritual Practice for Daily Life.
Even in a big city with so much to offer, though, why is it that so much of my knowledge is still mostly gleaned from the written word? My stereotypically Aquarian standoffishness is not particularly well served by the intense intellectualization that comes from so much reading without being able to integrate all that new information into my physical body in the context of any kind of long-term community.
And even when I do attempt to engage with other like-minded folks, it either tends to be online (such as Drucilla Pettibone’s Faericology course) or extremely short-term (such as a weekend workshop at Chicago’s Equilibrium). These are better than nothing, of course, but don’t exactly do much to combat my brain-in-a-jar tendencies.
I supposed this furtive behavior is also somewhat compounded by my irrational fear of being judged by the handful of scientific brainiacs and atheist intellectuals I also count among my friends. Whether it’s the brilliant editors at my day job or casual acquaintances who work at science labs or as university professors, I often find myself in a mild panic when I consider what they might think of me if they ever found out I give aura readings, connect energetically with the faery realm, or occasionally communicate with spirits who have passed away from this physical plane.
Part of my difficulty here stems from my inability to reconcile my intense spiritual longings with my equally intense curiosity about the hard sciences. As a middle schooler, I remember sitting through science classes and thinking, “why aren’t science teachers and scientists the most religious people in the world?” The extraordinary wonder of the natural world just seemed too beautiful to be approached with anything other than complete reverence. As an adult, I still do believe that privately, but often want to hang a gigantic asterisk over my head to inform all my techno-pals, “yes, I may give aura readings, and yes, I may be intensely in tune with the energy of people, places, and things, but I’m not some sort of floaty, brainless starchild. I stand by the scientific method, too!”
I know it’s not an all or nothing proposition, and I know that I should trust other people’s capacity to enjoy my company while disagreeing with me at the same time. But this is where I feel my lack of community most keenly. In wanting to be accepted by any sort of larger group, I’m essentially willing to hide or minimize the parts of myself that connect me with the largeness of the sublime.
I’ve, historically, not been known among close friends as a crier. So, one of the most unexpected, and, in some ways, welcome, developments of ’08 was my transformation into, well, something of a basket case, frankly. Name an event, and chances are I’ve sobbed through it this year: movies, concerts, sex, meditation, and, in Caribou’s case, laundry. Yep, Caribou made me cry doing laundry. It was the morning after their transcendent springtime concert, and as I sat watching my clothes tumble dry, I got to mulling, and then tearing up, over the previous night’s events: the pastel wonderland the normally dark and scuzzy Empty Bottle became under the magical influence of the band’s psychedelic projected backdrop and what a warm, welcome, enveloping setting it was, if only for a few hours, after an exaggeratedly pain-in-the-ass winter in Chicago; the musicians’ genial ferocity as they tore through an inspired selection of songs from Andorra and The Milk of Human Kindness; and how thankful I was to be there to witness the phenomenal brilliance of the propulsive double drum attacks between sit-in drummer Ahmed Gallab and the polymusically gifted Dan Snaith. The exotic, weirdly circular drum pattern here always brings me back to that gray Saturday morning in April when I was overcome by the beauty of the remembrance of what had just passed and the sweet yet forlorn sadness that came with knowing I couldn’t share my enthusiasm about it with one of the few people who ever would have truly understood and appreciated it.
Surprise! That paragraph is about my dad!
My dad had a stroke in July 2004, spent the better part of the next eight years in a nursing home in Indiana, and died on December 16, 2012.
I haven’t felt like I’ve done much mourning in this past year. Mostly because I did a lot of it circa 2007/2008.
Though I’d been in traditional therapy since mid-2004, it wasn’t until I started regularly attending the Sunday morning services at the Zen Buddhist Temple here in Chicago and recommitted myself to a daily meditation practice that so many of my hardened emotions began to thaw, and leak, out. In the paragraph from 2008 quoted at the top of this post, I write that I cried during movies, concerts, sex, meditation, and laundry, but it’s the crying while sitting on my meditation mat and cushion that I remember from that year most vividly now.
In the 20 minutes that I carved out for myself to sit and count my breaths before leaving for work every morning, I would sit there and sob and then scrape myself together to walk to the train. And though it all felt like an amorphous blob of emotion at the time, just letting out whatever needed to go, I think a large part of it was actually starting the process of saying goodbye to my father.
In my early 20s, recently arrived in Chicago after graduating from Indiana University, I remember talking to a friend of mine on the phone about all the wonderful film and music and theater and books and television I’d been getting into. We shared updates and recommendations about our new favorite stuff, and somewhere along the line I got philosophical and mused, “yeah, but where does that love go?”
It felt like a completely overpowering question. In many ways, I still am asking it, a little bit every day.
When I feel that excitement and esteem and affection for a piece of pop culture, what happens to that emotion? If I’ll never meet the actress who played the part, or the writer who wrote the words, or the singer who sang the song, and will never have a chance to tell any of them how much I loved the work they produced, where does that unexpressed feeling go? What does it turn into? What does it mean?
My friend, a devout Christian, tried to give me some kind of answer, though I barely remember what he said now. Something to the effect that that love contributes to some overall balance of Good in the universe. But, I think it really made him wonder too.
I don’t know if it’s a quirk of my character in general, or if it was just a characteristic of being in my early 20s, that the only way I could conceive of it at the time was as a turning outward: telling the artist, talking about the art, sending the love into the universe. That impulse to share, to spread, to give away was probably what started, and kept, me writing my old blog Wrestling Entropy in the first place—wanting to tell people about the stuff I enjoyed reading and watching, proselytizing for new converts to whatever hot shit I was obsessed with at the moment.
It’s only now, approaching my mid-30s, that I’m beginning to realize it’s possible, and even desirable, to use that love as a kind of internal nourishment. Keeping it, not out of a selfishness or a desire to hide things from anyone, but as a way of fueling my own creativity, of building up a positive energetic bank balance that will in turn help me create the kind of beautiful life I long to lead. To become the kind of beautiful person living it.
Despite my training as a psychic, despite having learned how to read past lives and access information energetically and see clairvoyantly with my inner vision, I still often feel baffled when I contemplate everything that is lost when a person dies. Everything that they knew, and remembered, and thought about—gone. When it comes to my father, a gifted piano player, it seems incomprehensible to me that all the musical knowledge and skill he’d amassed over his lifetime has disappeared. This is where I miss him most, and most uncomplicatedly.
I will never stop wanting to share new music with him, or ask him to help me parse a cool rhythmic pattern or chord structure. When I listen to a band like Caribou, or a singer/guitarist like Richard Hawley, or any number of other new artists that catch my fancy, that old instinct to turn outward with my appreciation is immediately caught short when I realize that I can’t offer it up to him, for his enjoyment, and for our ability to bond over it. It’s the time when keeping it really does feel more like losing it, like it’s disappearing.
I’ve been known to say that I’m not terribly ambitious.
But what I just as often don’t admit is that I am actually terribly competitive.
In a weird twist on the expected manifestation of competitiveness, however, I tend not to redouble my efforts to get better at a thing in order to rise to the level of whoever I perceive as cramping my style; I usually just abandon the endeavor altogether. It’s all a very bitter “fuck you, I’m taking my toys and going home” kind of sad snottiness.
My perfectionism, delightfully, doesn’t just force me to want to be the best at a thing; it twists the knife even deeper so that I also kind of want to be the only person doing it. I want people to look at me and think, “aha, the singular Allison! She is just so incredible and unique, truly the source of inspiration for so many of us. We are all mere footnotes in her personal expression of excellence.” Or, as Carrie Fisher brilliantly put it a couple years ago: “I want to explode in the night sky of your approval.” When my explosion threatens to be dimmed by a nearby city skyline, a simultaneous fireworks display, or, heaven forbid, the very stars themselves, well . . . what’s the use in exploding anymore anyway?
The beloved Henry Van Dyke quote “Use whatever talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best” I know is meant to be encouraging, to inspire persistence and joy in the act of creation for the sake of itself, but my stupid, competitive brain always reads it and thinks, “but someone’s got to be the best bird; why not me?!” Ridiculous.
The other complicating factor in this competitive streak is that I’m still in many ways living out my father’s failure narratives. As he got older and more depressed, he became increasingly mired in that stereotypical middle-class male regret of feeling like he wasn’t a good enough provider for his family. It’s interesting, though, that I don’t think I ever heard him express any self-doubt about his talents as a musician. That was one of the few aspects of his life he never seemed to question. In fact, his artistic standards were so high and exacting that he would become enraged when he could tell a person playing with him wasn’t giving a 100 percent effort. Multiple people told me at his funeral that, despite his temper tantrums and profanity-laced tirades, they were grateful to his prodding, that he turned them into better musicians.
Perhaps having lived with that attitude for so many years of my life contributes to my instinct to abandon a task when I can’t be the best at it. Perhaps it’s a way to dodge the possibility that I’ll be excoriated for a less than immediately stellar effort. Or perhaps the sense of failure in our family is like a heat-seeking missile, homing in on wherever our personal weaknesses may live: for him, his masculinity; for me, my sense of self-worth as an artist. Then again, one other possible way of interpreting my struggles in this area is, as one of my clairvoyant teachers once suggested, that I carry the burden of his failure inside myself in a way that prevents me from ever becoming “too much” for him to deal with.
When I graduated from Indiana University and was invited to give a student commencement speech to a small gathering of fellow graduates from the English department, he found a way to crush my high spirits afterward, when he bemoaned the fact that he didn’t get any of the poetic references the professors were making during their speeches. I remember feeling stunned, and then of course hurt. Wasn’t this what he’d always wanted of me? That I would excel in my field, that I would be the cream of the crop, that I would travel in a world of excellence? Why had my moment of triumph suddenly become about his intellectual insecurity? Clearly this was, if not my being too much for him, at the very least it was him expressing his feelings of not being enough for something I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time.
But, I’ve also come to realize recently that my impulse to abandon projects, or entire communities, is connected to that very sense of feeling like an underdog. Though I am proud to align myself with all manner of freaks and dirtbags and losers, I am also beginning to recognize the place where this sensibility obviously, directly clashes with my perfectionism. How can I be an underdog while also being the star? And this isn’t the Hollywood-style “against all odds, the biggest loser comes from behind, through sheer persistence and pluck to score the winning point for the team” variety of underdog narrative. It’s my adoption of my father’s class inferiority. If I perceive people as getting too fancy or too big for their britches—or if I feel insufficiently esteemed in the context of any given group or organization—I’ll usually find a way to extricate myself and move on to something else.
And so, as in Van Dyke’s silent forest, I’ve found myriad ways over the years to silence parts of myself that weren’t the very best.
In college I silenced much of my natural inclination to perform, both as an actress and as a musician, because I thought I wouldn’t be able to hack it in IU’s world-class theater and music departments.
After being rejected for an internship at a well-known entertainment magazine in New York City, I eventually turned to the then relatively low-stakes world of blogging. But after about six years of that, when my readership was no larger than when I began, and as I seethed with jealousy over newcomers to the scene who were finding ways to make a living from their online writing, I closed up shop in order to devote myself to the development of my psychic abilities.
And now that websites like The Numinous are cropping up, and as more and more people are openly talking about their own paranormal experiences, I find myself thinking, “what’s the point? The fact that I do aura readings and can give healings on people’s astral bodies doesn’t make me special anymore. I should just give it up.” Why is this the first place my brain goes? Why am I not celebrating this mainstream resurgence of interest in all things mystical and feeling excited to be part of this growing movement? I’m not quite sure what would fix the problem for me—if suddenly everyone else abandoned their séances and guided meditation classes? Or if the world took a vote and unanimously decided, “yes, Allison, in fact you are terribly special. You can’t give this up. You are the very best of the best.”
But, on the other side of these fits of pique is usually the saving grace of my voracious curiosity. Now that I’ve achieved a certain level of proficiency in one school of psychic techniques, I’m hungry to learn more, to know more, to explore more. So, I’ve signed up for an entry-level reiki class. I’m tremendously excited to learn about this modality and am looking forward to adding the techniques to my spiritual toolkit. It would just be nice if my ego could give me a break for a while, so that I can allow the night sky to shine without my input.
As is perhaps obvious from my previous post about picking the “right” perfume to wear for New Year’s Eve, I’m a sucker for creating a Sense of Occasion for pretty much any event. So, of course, I love making new year’s resolutions, though I don’t take them as seriously as I did in my teens and early twenties. This year, however, I decided to try a slightly different approach, inspired by a few other blog and Facebook posts I’d read, and declared for myself a Word of the Year instead. After I bit of meditation and contemplation, I settled on BUILD.
Actually, I came up with REBUILD first. But, energetically, that felt a bit more shadowy. Not quite negative, exactly; just touched with loss in a way that I wasn’t comfortable with inviting in to set the tone for the full twelve months ahead. (I plan on still working with REBUILD to be honest, just from a more Jungian Shadow perspective, as a necessary yin to the yang of BUILD.)
As for BUILD, though, I intend to use it to remind myself not to run away from a thing after I’ve enjoyed the excitement of the Beginning of it.
I am endlessly capable of being seduced by Beginnings; it’s seeing things through their long, indefinable Middles that I am less good at. Someone once described my defining character trait as my sense of curiosity, which was one of the most accurate (and lovely) things that has ever been said about me. I never want to find myself in a place where I’m not fascinated by the world around me. However, I can often allow that curiosity to serve as justification for half-assing my way through the completion of a goal or project because I want to get to the next shiny thing that’s caught my eye. To be sure, in an effort to get to an Ending, I can grit my teeth and barrel through pretty much anything. But after a lifetime of wishing myself to 5 o’clock, or Friday, or the end of the season, or the end of the year, I’m hoping to finally slow down a bit and learn to actually enjoy the Middle of any given experience.
Focusing on Middles is also an attempt to step away from the precocious child routine that has been secretly running my life, like a bad Wes Anderson script, for as long as I can remember. My inner eight year old still wants to be immediately good at a thing, or not do it at all. As I watch so many of my peers beginning to find tangible success in their chosen fields—success that has come through sticking with an idea or goal—I find myself kind of inwardly pouting over my own perceived stasis or lack of achievement. Achievement being a euphemism for recognition here, of course.
I’ve always been enamored of the spotlight, and applause is usually more of a motivator for me than the simple inner satisfaction of a job well done. But of course applause doesn’t come in the middle of a thing, which, I’m sure, has contributed to my attempts to avoid all those slow, quiet spots between the beginning and the end. I wouldn’t need to remind myself to focus on BUILDING for a full year if applause didn’t matter to me.
But, luckily, I’m starting to see that the secret power of BUILD is in the way it serves as a reminder that I have so many good things in my life right now. BUILD does not equal CREATE. I’m grateful for the solid foundation I’ve made for myself in so many crucial areas of my life. Surely the best way to honor the work that I’ve done so far is to not allow those good Beginnings to atrophy into lackluster Endings simply because I’ve abandoned them as good enough. I’d like to work with the energy of 2014 as a gateway into the middle of my grand adventures, as I begin to BUILD my beginnings into something so much richer than I ever could have imagined from the starting line.