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Authors: Christine Wicker

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BOOK: Lily Dale
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Long before I read the books of William James, who was among America's greatest psychologists and philosophers, I agreed with his idea that religious accounts are worth listening to, no matter how farfetched they seem, and that a good way to judge a religion's validity is by the effect it has on people's lives. My first question is, do they really believe it? The second question is, how does it affect their lives? That's the story.

Sometimes there's a third question hovering behind the others. This one is just for me, not for the newspaper. I want to know how such belief would change me.

This curiosity is almost certainly a holdover from childhood. I was born again at nine, which was the right age for Southern Bap
tist children of my generation. I went down the aisle of the church as the congregation crooned choruses of “I Surrender All,” answered yes when asked whether I would accept Jesus as my personal savior, and put my childish scrawl, smudged because I was left-handed, on the bottom of a pledge that I would never drink alcoholic beverages. The result was a feeling of elation and goodness that lasted for weeks and a feeling of having set myself apart from the unsaved that lasted about ten years. I rededicated my life at almost every revival and gave a Bible to my uncle inscribed with the hope that God would save his soul as God had saved mine.

I was educated out of faith. College so amazed me that I swallowed almost everything my professors said, and all of them seemed to be saying that the personal savior has no place in the life of smart people. Since then I have indulged in many alcoholic beverages and done other un-Baptist things with little remorse. Even so, those Big God ideas, the childlike longings that some people put away with their dolls or toy trucks, still live muffled within me. As a result, I often find myself uncommonly open to religious people's beliefs, no matter how bizarre their practices may seem.

I first noticed it on a Hare Krishna story. I goaded a devotee by saying, “You put out food for statues. You dance around in dresses. And you think people are going to be affected by what you say?”

He looked across the table and didn't say anything for a minute. Then he said, “I think I'll have an effect on you.”

I grinned and shrugged. I thought not.

But he was right. He enchanted me somehow with the idea that odd-looking folks making a nuisance and a spectacle of themselves are calling God down, bringing him among us. The devotee said they chant and dance because God's presence blesses everyone, even the scoffers, who may need it most. The idea that ritual could lasso God and pull him down like some big soft cloud was an idea
that the stripped-down literalism of my youth had not included. But it did change me, a little.

The stakes are high in religion, and nowhere are they higher than in Lily Dale. If the mediums are getting some special knowledge of other people's lives, whether they are getting it from spirits or God or the collective consciousness, if they are getting otherworldly information, life isn't what most of us think it is. If they are telling the truth, there might be a purpose, a plan, a future beyond the slow slouch toward death that life seems. If Lily Dale stands on something real, I wanted to know about it. Who wouldn't?

What began as a quick story turned into something bigger. I would spend three years of my life plumbing the mysteries of Lily Dale. I never intended for any of it to change me. But it did.


Note to the Reader: A Partial Cast of Characters can be found in backmatter.

ynn Mahaffey rides up and down the hills of Lily Dale on a rusty black Schwinn with a wire basket strapped to the back wheel by a plastic rope. She often wears light blue. It matches her eyes, faded to a soft sapphire now that she's close to eighty, but beautiful still. She rides her bike slowly, past tourists in shorts and sandals, past gingerbread cottages that advertise the services of mediums, past the mediums themselves as they hustle with skirts flying toward Forest Temple.

She bikes five miles every day, for her heart and for the world. She prays as she rides. She holds the earth in her mind, the whole globe, lapis and emerald spinning through space. She prays for everything on it, rich and poor, good and evil, human and otherwise. Upon it all she calls down blessing.

Lynn was in her early twenties in the 1940s when she first visited Lily Dale. Responding to an urge she couldn't explain, she took off her shoes before getting out of the car. “I knew I was on holy ground,” she said.

Every day she pedals around the cafeteria with its big screened porch and stained cement floor. She skirts muddy puddles in the community's pitted roads. She passes Leolyn Woods, an old-growth forest bisected by a gravel path. The woods' path goes by the pet
cemetery and leads to Lily Dale's holiest spot, Inspiration Stump, where the mediums gather to call up departed loved ones. Turn over any rock in Leolyn Woods and you're likely to find some Spiritualist's ashes moldering. The people of Lily Dale so often ask to be scattered in the woods that there's a name for the practice. “Walking them out” it's called.

Lynn's tires would bog down in the path's gravel, so she turns on the road and passes the wide field where Margaret Mary and Bob Hefner stand every month, counting Hail Marys on their rosaries and scanning the sky for the Virgin Mother, who has repeatedly assured Margaret Mary that she will appear. Lynn passes the Lily Dale Spiritualist Church, the little white church where people gather summer mornings hoping to be healed, and Assembly Hall, a two-story meetinghouse where students practice bending spoons and making tables rise. She coasts around men who carry passports to Orion in their wallets and women who give lessons in how to tell an angel from a human being. She wheels around widows hoping to talk with their late husbands, skirts love-struck girls anxious to find out if their boyfriends are cheating, steers clear of divorcees yearning to know whether passion will ever visit them again.

If you came to Lily Dale a thousand times and passed Lynn on the street every day, you might never notice her. She's short and wears big glasses that sometimes slip down so that she has to take one hand off the handlebar and push them up by stabbing her forefinger into the nosepiece. A grandmother with fluffy gray hair, she is shy, humble, slightly hard of hearing, and soft-spoken. She has no standing in the world, no title, no lofty degrees, no certification.

In the years I visited this 123-year-old village to study the quick and the dead, I came to think of Lynn as a living version of the spirits said to be flitting about, whispering secrets in the mediums' ears, appearing in dreams, rising up in hazy wavering visions,
applauding, encouraging, running things in a way that helps human happiness. If you don't have eyes to see, you'd never spot her. If you don't have ears to hear, you'd never listen. It takes some faith to heed an old woman who arrives each summer high in the passenger seat of a big RV, her husband, John, gripping the wheel, her bicycle strapped to the back of the car they're pulling. Just as it takes some faith to believe in spirits even if you see and hear them yourself.

It was Lynn who finally showed me that Lily Dale can be completely silly, banal, and simpleminded, but that nevertheless the people there are engaged in something vital and true. That understanding didn't come, however, until more than a year after I met her. Eventually her words would free me; in between, just about every piece of spiritual wisdom she gave shocked and dismayed me.

The woman who helped her change me was her friend and protégé, Shelley Takei. Shelley, who spends summers in a big lavender house on the hill near the entrance to Lily Dale, draws women like the Pied Piper draws children. And, like the Piper, she leads them right over the cliffs, out of what she likes to call consensus reality into free fall, a blissful new reality where all things feminine are all right. Shelley told me everything I needed to know about Lily Dale the first day I met her. She laid it out, but the more she talked the more she confused me. Like a Zen riddle, she is simple to describe but hard to understand.

Most people who visit Lily Dale probably go away unchanged. They find what they expect. Many are already dancing on the cosmic fringe, and Lily Dale affirms them. Skeptics, who like to call the place Silly Dale or Spooksville, also generally find Lily Dale to be the nonsense they expect it to be. But the majority of Lily Dale visitors are neither converts nor scoffers. They believe a little and doubt a little and don't make a religion of it. They come to play in Lily Dale, to flirt with mysteries, to entertain intriguing notions
that can be pulled out at will and put away without regret. For them, Lily Dale is fun, pure and simple.

None of these visitors interested me much. I wanted to meet people with focused hopes, seekers who needed what the Dale offers and were changed by what they received. I wanted to talk to people who needed Lily Dale's promises so desperately that anyone who encountered them would ache at hearing of their pain and want to strike out at Lily Dale if it deceived them.

I found what I was looking for in a bereaved mother named Pat Naulty and a widow named Carol Lucas. Carol was in fresh grief, still dazed, as though her husband's death had been a cudgel blow to her head. She was apt to weep at anything. More than anything in life, Carol wanted her husband back.

Pat Naulty came to Lily Dale expecting nothing. The worst of her grief was long over. Her guilt was another matter. She had endured that and expected that she always would. Guilt had so numbed parts of her psyche that she didn't even long for succor.

I almost missed my third story. The day I first met her, Marian Boswell was a too-skinny little brunette talking compulsively about her troubles. I backed away as fast as I could, but I wasn't fast enough. Before I got free of her, she told me a story of Lily Dale power that I couldn't forget. So I contacted her again and listened some more. Hers was a tale of unearthly doings, of prophesized disaster, and of the indomitable human ability to find meaning and hope in the oddest ways.

ust pop my brain out, put it in a computer, and I'd be perfectly happy,” Dr. Pat Naulty said. “I'm all intellect.” When people described the community college English professor as spiritual, she invariably thought,
What a crock.

Pat came to Lily Dale for a rest. Her friend Shelley Takei invited her during the short break the professor allowed herself each summer. Pat, who was from Virginia Beach, knew only a little about the Dale. She imagined it as a sort of refuge for psychics, like the towns where circus people go for the winter, a sanctuary for misfits.

She wasn't thinking of her son John as she spotted the little road sign that sits on Highway 60 with the words L
and an arrow pointing west. She was thinking that after a hundred miles of state highways, too much coffee, and no restrooms, she needed a pit stop pretty bad.

Pat once thought about nothing but John. Fifteen years had passed, however, and even the worst grief has to shift its grip sometime. Pat had left her two sons and their dad to go to college. Some people said she abandoned them, but that wasn't true. Most people didn't understand. Pat would have died if she'd stayed in Indiana. She thought so then, and she thinks so now.

John, who was ten when she left, cried, begged her not to get divorced, promised he would be good if she stayed. When he was twelve, he told her he was going to live as though she didn't exist. “If you send me letters, I won't open them. If you send me presents, I will return them,” he said. And for a year he did just that.

She kept writing and sending presents, and they all came back. When she called, he wouldn't come to the phone. But, one day, he opened a notebook of poems she had written to him when he was small, and they broke through. He remembered that she loved him.

As the years went by, it was John, and sometimes only John, who cheered her on. He was the same bighearted little boy who had always saved a piece of his candy to share with her. Their phone conversations never went long before he stopped talking about himself and said, “Now, tell me how you are.”

She knew John was troubled during the fall of his sixteenth year. There'd been minor run-ins with the police, nothing serious, just silly kid tricks. She could hear the blue mood in his voice, but he agreed that she couldn't come see him until exams were over. He told her not to. She began writing him a letter, but she was so busy. It lay on the desk for days waiting for her to finish.

On the day John and two friends gathered in Vincennes, Indiana, with a gun, one bullet, and the idea that a game of Russian roulette might be fun, Pat was sleeping two thousand miles away. John's friends each took a turn, and twice the gun hammer clicked on empty. As John lifted the handgun to his temple his mother began to dream. She was at a party, and she had lost something important. An ache grew within her as she searched more and more frantically. What was it? Where was it?

She awoke. Her mouth was dry. Her tongue was thick and rasped against her palette. Her lips were pulled back over her teeth and so parched that they stuck there. For a moment she lay limp, not yet free of the dream's longing and sorrow. Then she pushed
herself out of bed and went to the bathroom to splash water on her face and into her mouth. As she looked into the mirror, she tried to remember. What had she lost?

When the phone rang, Pat knew the voice. Years of love had taught her to hear so much in her ex-husband's hello that she could jump across that single word into all that might be coming. Years of anger and fear had sharpened that ability. He identified himself anyway.

And Pat said, “John's dead, isn't he?”

She heard what her voice said. Her mind didn't yet know it. Only her body understood. It was as if someone had taken a sledgehammer, aimed it at her breastbone, and let fly. Air gushed from her nose and mouth as her chest crushed into her body. Five years would pass before she could touch the bones near her heart without wincing at the pain.

As Pat passed the awnings of Lazaroni's restaurant and rounded the curve of Dale Drive as it skirts the edge of Cassadaga Lake, she forgot her need of a toilet. A powerful feeling of homecoming, so intense it was almost delirious, swept over her. This was something she had never felt.

“It was as though I was returning to a place I'd left a long time ago. I felt such delight. I laughed aloud,” she said.

Scientists would say that Pat's feeling was a glitch in memory caused by the way the brain stores experience. At some time in her life she had been to a similar place, and now her brain was confused. It had lost the specifics of that particular memory and stored only the general feeling and look of the place. She mistook this faulty connection for homecoming and happiness. If Pat had only known more science, she would have reasoned that delight away. She never would have felt all woozy with wonder as she passed through the gates that separate Lily Dale from the world.

BOOK: Lily Dale
8.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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