I’ve been thinking a lot about psychic activity. But then you already knew that.
When driving through a rather bleak town in Northern California, my husband noticed a sign reading Psychic Fair this weekend. “Wouldn’t you like to go?” he asked me, knowing of my deep if embarrassing fascination for the subject. “But it doesn’t give any information about where or when,” I point out. Slyly, he replied, “If you have to ask you don’t belong there.”
My interest in psychics, in reincarnation, in ghosts, in past lives, in dreams, and in other things unnerving has always been my secret vice. I buy books on the paranormal the way other people buy pornography. I sneak into the occult section of a bookstore in order to retain my anonymity and when I request the titles I ask that they be sent in plain brown wrappers with no identifying feature visible to anyone’s prying eyes. If somebody can tell what’s in the parcel through the brown paper wrapper, then they’re welcome to start a conversation with me. Otherwise, I’ve just kept it to myself. But now I’ve decided to stop sneaking around. I’ve decided that an interest in the topic doesn’t mean I’m going to start saying, “I see dead people.” After all, that phrase only really applied when I was dating.
No doubt a lot of this emerged from the primordial ooze of my combined Sicilian-French Canadian heritage. We were not so much Christians as we were pagans with a light coating of Roman Catholicism. My aunts who all wore black lace mantillas would go to church to yell at God and light candles. They also lit candles at home. We’re not talking some kind of scented housewarming candles. They weren’t doing this for feng shui. They were doing this so that the disgruntled dead would be less likely to wreak havoc on their lives. There was a belief somehow that the dead obviously didn’t have enough to do.
We knew for example that there was no sex in heaven, but that wouldn’t have taken up so much time anyhow. But it became clear that there probably weren’t any card games in heaven either. No pinnocle, no gin rummy, or even pokeno (those who know will know). So the dead had a lot of time on their hands, obviously. Which meant that they liked to come and interfere. “It’s your great-grandmother who moves everything,” my Aunt Josie would say when I couldn’t find a pen that I’d put down. "She shuffles things around when she thinks we’re not paying enough attention to her. If you can’t find something, even when you know where you’ve put it, just say ‘Aunt Josie, come on, let me find my pen please,’ and leave the room for a couple of minutes. When you come back, the odds are 10 to 1 that you’ll find the pen just where you thought you’d already looked.”
You might need to deal with a fancier dead person if things were more complicated. If Aunt Josie couldn’t help you find what you were looking for you might need to apply to Saint Anthony, the Finder of Lost Objects. Apparently Saint Anthony liked when you took two chairs and tied them together back to back in the middle of the room.
If you did that, you could virtually guarantee finding whatever was lost. “The only thing it doesn’t work for is virginity,” snickered my cousin Marie.
I always thought that my interest in strange stuff had to do with the mostly all-female world in which I was raised. Both official and unofficial spiritual lives seemed the provenance of women. Men didn’t bother much with any of this. (Except for my one gay uncle who seemed as interested in the whole business as any of his sisters.) I learned that my father was not immune to magic, its threats or its promises when on my twelfth birthday a friend gave me a ouija board.
We were all in the basement of the house we had recently moved into on Long Island. There were probably six of us girls. All giggling and smudging up against each other in the dark while our fingertips rolled the little wheely thing around the board. Suddenly Bonnie screamed. “I felt something! I really felt something!” she yelled. I hurried to switch on the light. The room felt cold and it took only the flicker of a second to realize that we were all genuinely scared.
My father ran down the stairs, asking what the hell had happened and started to laugh when we told him what we were doing. “For a bunch of smart girls, you’re all morons,” declared my father as he ushered us up the stairs for soda and cake in the sunny afternoon.
Only two years ago, and only after plying my aged father with two of my husband’s significantly potent martinis, did I discover that my father was genuinely worried by the incident in the basement. He explained that the only reason he got to buy the house as cheaply as he did was because the family who’d originally owned the house had planned to give it to their son on his wedding, and this son died the night before the wedding was to have taken place.
“They just wanted to get rid of the place. They had even left all his things in the attic. His games, his books, his uniform from Korea. All that was still there when we moved in and I thought it would be bad luck to touch it.” “You mean, we lived with that guy’s stuff in the house the whole time we were there?” I had never been up to the attic—there was no staircase and as far as I knew no reason to go up there. “What can I tell you?” sipped my father. “I just didn’t see any reason for your friends to get in touch with this guy, inviting him to come back and claim the house as his.”
My father admitted, too, that directly after shooing us into the kitchen he went down to the basement and put salt in the corners of the room in order to drive out any spirits that might have lingered.
We were not a particularly sophisticated bunch. My interest in the spooky went underground during college, although when my roommate and I would go study in the graveyard during the summer term—it was the prettiest place on campus—we always made sure to say hello to the guys on whose ghostly laps we were sitting. And, of course like most other people, I’ve also had sexual rendezvous in cemeteries where it was always amusing to see “He is risen” pressed into someone’s shoulder blades. But studying and fooling around seemed to me to be things of which the dead would approve. Only now in the middle of my middle-age can I admit that my interest is still vital.
When I dream about the dead, it does feel as if I’m getting some kind of digitally transmitted picture the way someone would send you vacation pictures as an email attachment. My adoring husband, who sums up my interest in these matters as “nuts,” gave me a fabulous birthday present where he rented a limo and had six of my friends and me taken to see a psychic in another state (not because he was afraid that someone in-state would recognize us but because this guy had a good reputation). When one of us was getting a reading the rest of us were getting our nails done at a salon next door. Then we all went to eat and discussed our past and future lives.
To be honest, the conversation was probably pretty much what it would have been had we not gone to see the psychic—the past and the future being the subjects of our usual conversation on any evening when we all got together and launched ourselves into food and wine.
And maybe that’s part of what attracts me to these ideas is that they take us to places that are already familiar: they ask us questions about who have been and who we are going to be. A guy goes to a strip club for the same reason a woman goes to a psychic: to have something revealed.