You describe Lily Dale as the nation's oldest Spiritualist community. What are the fundamental beliefs of Spiritualism?
That they can prove the existence of the afterlife by communicating with the spirits. They also believe in a universal intelligence--a God. They don't believe that you go to hell.
They have bibles in spiritualist churches, and they often talk about Jesus as being the greatest medium of all time. Because, of course, he did healing. He had knowledge of the spiritual world beyond what most people have. And he came back!--as a spirit. So they have great reverence for him. But the thing that's really distinctive is their belief that anyone can communicate with spirits.
Why do they think spirits want to communicate?
They think spirits want to come back and assure us they're all right and that they're still alive. Often what they come back to say is that they love us, and sometimes they come back with apologies for behavior. But one thing that William James noted is that they often don't say things that we might want them to say. (laughs) They don't come back and say, "The lottery ticket's in the drawer."
But spiritualists do talk about heaven, which they call Summerland. There are books with information from the spirits describing what you do there and how old you are. A lot of them say you're 35, which is supposed to be the optimal age of physical, emotional and mental development. Or some people say that you are the age that you were when you were the happiest.
Do they think people age in heaven?
I heard two different stories about mediums talking to women who'd had abortions. They came to the meeting wanting to communicate with the spirits of their aborted fetuses. And in both cases, these mediums reassured the women that the babies were happy and growing up in Summerland.
You write about a lot of praying in Lily Dale. Whom do they pray to?
They address their prayers to Mother-Father God. They pray to God and they do believe in God. But I had a lot of trouble with that because, although I'm not Southern Baptist anymore, those are my origins. So when people would talk to me about spirituality in Lily Dale, I have to tell you, I was just lost. For me spirituality was about doing God's will, and I never heard people [there] talk about doing God's will. And they never ask for forgiveness because they don't see any reason to have forgiveness. They believe that whatever you do, you pay for. That you reap what you sow, that it all comes back to you, in this life or the next.
Spiritualists don't have a big dogma or doctrine. And so everybody can believe pretty much what he or she wants. One of the things that's nice about going there is that nobody gets mad at you if you don't believe what they believe. It just wouldn't occur to them.
The other thing I really like about them is that while the mediums act as a conduit for the spirits, they never claim any special holiness. They don't set themselves up as gurus.
Yes. They often say that it's like playing the piano. Not everybody's Mozart, but everybody can plunk away.
Do you think that's true?
I saw a study cited that said 50-80% of people have felt at least the strong presence of their loved ones who've passed on.
It's a funny thing about these experiences--sometimes people have them and they register, but not completely. They put them so far in the back of their consciousness that you talk to them for quite a while and then they look sort of funny and they say, "You know, something like that did happen to me."
Your book gives the impression you think Lily Dale is a spiritually unique place--that there's something about the actual physical location that makes this kind of communication possible.
Lily Dale in the summer does feel magical. I had been there in the winter and spring, but in the summer the energy rises. People say that if you go to Inspiration Stump, which is in the middle of this old growth forest, and you stand near the stump -- which they used to stand on to give messages until somebody had a heart attack and everybody got scared that the vibrations were too strong -- or you stand behind it, the hair on your arms will rise and you will feel the energy in the air. I never did.
But I often have trouble sleeping in Lily Dale. One of the mediums told me, "Well, you stayed too long--it's the energy, it keeps you awake." He said, "If you will spend a night outside Lily Dale, you'll be able to sleep." So I did. And I could. But was that a self-fulfilling prophecy? I don't know. What I loved the most about doing the book is that it forced me to explore my own consciousness in a way that I never had before.