When I was almost six Papa, my mother’s father, had a heart attack at home and died. I remember fragmented images of my grandparent’s house on that day—like the way the streaks of sunlight created a grid across Papa’s face and the insistent ticking of the clock. But what I remember most clearly, as I stood on the threshold of the parlor doorway, was the transparent silhouette of Papa’s body as he appeared to me. He was right there—watching and smiling from the corner of the room. Somehow my young mind knew this extraordinary experience was mine alone and I kept silent.
In my teens I found my way to theatre, where it seemed so many misfits hiding one secret or another—me among them—were at home. Then one day in 1978, a theatre friend invited me to join her at a yoga class. Before we were allowed into the basement of the Spiritualist Church, we needed to give a password. Though I’d found small pockets of acceptance in theatre, I was still on the outside searching for a place to fit in and was blindly willing to try almost anything. NaÔve, shy, still desperate to belong, I don’t think that it ever occurred to me that arriving alone at the underground door of a closed church might not be a safe thing to do. Experience had shown me that I would never be part of mainstream society, and being part of something—even something 1970s society thought bizarre—was better than being alone.
That first class twenty-five years ago was a turning point. I finally found a place where differences were tolerated, sometimes even celebrated. Some of the yoga people even talked about premonitions and visions of their own. It struck me how matter-of-fact clairvoyance was to them. This inner sanctum co-existed alongside straight-laced America. Sometimes overlapped it.
There was a man who came to teach class directly from work, arriving in a traditional pin-striped designer suit and mirror-clear polished shoes, carrying a black leather briefcase, its contents protected by two tiny locks in the front. He emerged from the bathroom barefoot, wearing white jogging pants and a powder-blue muscle tee-shirt, a navy and white bandana tied around his forehead.
Sometimes the outer world collided with the spiritual path. Many of the people involved in yoga were totally out of touch with anything on the earth plane. One woman floated into class and systematically hugged everyone before settling down on her mat. She had the longest, smoothest braid—it reminded me of that old Barbie doll whose hair grows when you push a button in her stomach.
In a way, these extremely odd people brought me comfort. I measured strangeness by degrees—I was weird, but they were weirder. Many were lost in one world totally unaware of the other, while I was straddling the two.
Eventually I came to understand the unity of all things—the one consciousness without regard to anything except the dynamic flow of energy—but at the time, I enjoyed a secure duality, believing the more I inhaled the inner circle, the less need I would have for everything outside of it. That yoga community gave me a reprieve from the meanness that affected me outside those church walls; inside I was a psychic free spirit, outside I had to conform to the prison of the matrix.
It is ironic that my deepest sense of belonging came in a church. Raised as a Catholic, I lived by the fear of God. A supreme, all-knowing being sat on high somewhere, passing judgment on every act and word. If I played by the rules, I was guaranteed entrance into heaven; if not, hell. I didn’t understand why God would make those kinds of rules.
There were many times I questioned the idea of one superior being and our individual responsibility to each other. At my paternal grandmother’s wake, my uncle confessed publicly that he had been cheating on his wife. The priest told him to say two Our Fathers and Three Hail Marys and all would be forgiven. For me, the experience shone a blinding light on inconsistent religious teachings. The idea that God forgives unconditionally is in direct conflict with the concept that God judges before granting entrance into heaven.
Meanwhile, another family member was in the midst of throwing herself onto my grandmother’s casket, pleading in Italian that burying my grandmother with her wedding ring was an insult to God and she wouldn’t be welcomed into those infamous pearly gates. Apparently heaven has a very modest dress code.
Through fear, intimidation, and control, many religions insist spirituality is outside of us and must be earned; they deny it as a facet integrated into our being before birth and remaining after death. I have learned that there is a significant difference between religion and spirituality—one is a man-made code of pre-determined conduct; the other bubbles up naturally from within if we stop long enough to let it. The Spiritualists were open enough to allow in a motley crew of yogis because they understood the difference.
An apprenticeship with my first yoga teacher, Raj, taught me more about energy flow as I was grasping a fuller understanding of electromagnetic vibrations—the frequency each person emits like radio signals tuned to different stations—and learning why I felt more comfortable with some people and less with others. His teachings also gave me a broader understanding of the universality of life, the reflection of our holographic world making every choice available to anyone. No person better than the other; every person in fact being the other.
Yoga set the stage for many new experiences. At the beginning of each class, the teacher would announce events that we might find interesting. Full-moon chants, summer-solstice celebrations, channelers, tea-leaf readers—the list went on with a smorgasbord of new age, old age, traditional, Pagan, and Buddhist. Usually a few people were always interested in going to something, so in the safety of my newly found family, I sought out as many new adventures as I could. Admittedly, I mostly drifted in the background and rarely spoke a word, but I went.
I sat at a sťance where the spirit of a man who was murdered came into the room and delivered the name of his assailant by tapping out Morse code. I witnessed the channeling of a being from another planet who advised that the earth was in danger of annihilation unless we combined positive energy to infuse love. I drank a chalice filled with hallowed water and crushed herbs concocted by a Wiccan High Priestess who chanted a blessing to mother earth, walked beside an Indian Chief as he beat a consecrated drum in honor of the summer solstice, and gazed through a telescope at the configurations of mythical Egyptian lovers, Isis and Osiris—their union after death revered as the symbol of rebirth.
These metaphysical encounters took place in church recreation halls crowded with pea-green plastic chairs and orange construction-paper decorations; in private houses filled with beanbag chairs, lava lamps and questionable homegrown tea; in clearings in the woods watched over by owls and mystified by rising fog, and by the ocean under a full moon luring a high sea into shore. Sometimes there were ten people, sometimes a hundred. Most of the time, I had little idea what was going on, but I was fascinated by the ritual lighting of candles, the chanting, the special breath-work, the mosaic cloaks and warrior-like face paint.
I always left each gathering relaxed—that is, until a brief encounter with a psychic who, midway through reading tarot cards for someone else, turned to me. I was hiding in the corner of the room.
“What are you waiting for? My path is your path.”
Her words held little emotion—as if she was simply stating a fact that needed to be acknowledged. But those few words gripped me and dominated my thoughts.
The fifteen-minute drive home seemed to take forever, and though it wasn’t late at night, I do not remember one other car on the road. The darkness seemed to increase with each mile I drove. Strangely, the darker it got, the more comfortable I became. I could not see the houses that lined the roads, and the streetlights blurred as if wrapped in cellophane. The car’s tires didn’t seem to be making contact with the road—no bumps, potholes, or the humming that friction with the pavement creates.
I lost awareness of my body. I saw my hands on the steering wheel, but they felt as if they were filled with helium and might rise and drift away. My eyes focused on the road ahead, but I could not decipher where the car ended and where it began. There was no weight in my legs, though my foot was pressing on the accelerator. My breath came out of my nostrils and paused a moment in the air in front of me.
Seemingly an instant later, I was in the driveway of my apartment, though I don’t recall how I got there. I sat in the car for a couple of minutes, unable to take charge of my body and move it into the house. When I finally did get out, a black cat was sitting at the head of the driveway staring at me. I don’t know where she came from, since I didn’t see her in the headlights when I turned into the drive. I stood there sheltered in the stare of her translucent yellow-green eyes for several minutes as some feeling began to seep back into my limbs. I looked down at my feet to confirm that I was standing upright on the black tarmac, and when I looked up again, she had disappeared.
I sat in a rocking chair by the living room window of that third-floor apartment, the psychic’s words rattling in my head.
What are you waiting for? My path is your path.
The balmy wind of that September night lifted the sheer peach curtains, and as it brushed past my eyelashes, I blinked. But nothing more came into focus.
I couldn’t sleep. Under a moonless sky, I stared into the flame of a single white candle. The sulfur smell of the used match permeated the air, and I marveled at the life stirred up by a tiny slice of cardboard. Fire is the perfect paradox of life and death—often destroying the physical but awakening the spiritual. In the inconsistent light flickering on the walls of the room, I hoped for answers to undefined questions. To live in the third dimension with my psychic gift meant having the courage to own it no matter what others might say. To shelter myself from everything out of alignment with what I believed to be a crucial spiritual quest could limit my perspective of the universe as a whole. Though I was seeking a more internal path, so far I had only meandered around its periphery.
The flame rippled back and forth like the hazy edges of the horizon in the summer’s heat. That solitary flame served as reminder that the smallest step can amount to grand changes, but also has the potential to ignite a fire that could blaze out of control. The longer I stared at it, the less I could think. My mind was cluttered and empty at the same time. I never thought anyone would notice me lurking around at the sťances and ceremonies. She’d blown my cover. My anonymity was gone.
The hours passed as I sat in contemplation of my next move. I didn’t associate with the outside world and could no longer hide in the refuge of this new one. I was lost.
From yoga I had learned breathing techniques designed to relax the nervous system, allowing the energetic body to escape the confinement of the physical body. I had never tried any of the exercises outside of class. But the blackness of that night surrounded me like a cocoon, and there was somehow safety in that void.
Nothing was visible in the room; it held only one four-inch candle and me. I stared into the flame and began paying attention to my breath as it traveled in and out of my body. Feeling my stomach expand, my ribs push forward as my chest rose, and then observing the breath released from my body in increments like the way the match flared up and then slowly died down.
My eyes were transfixed on the flame as its amber color shifted into blue, violet, and pink, settling back again to amber. The tongue of the flame seemed to speak to me, its shape thinning as it stretched up and thickening as it expanded sideways. I tried directing the flame like I had seen done at one of the ceremonies. I had no idea what I was doing, but concentrating all my attention on the flame, I pictured it forming into a circle. Still breathing deeply and working to shut out any other thoughts, I saw the flame begin to shift shape. Its outer edges restructured into a sphere like a mini glowing sun. I was not fully aware of this metamorphosis because I began to lose the feeling of my body the way a tingling sensation escalated into numbness at that first yoga class. The edges of the sphere were jagged, but the center was full. It seemed to be alive with a deliberately pulsing heartbeat summoning me to believe. Maybe even daring me.
I was no longer in darkness and no longer flesh and bone. Trapped by the flame and looking out from within it, I was weightless and thoughtless. My physical body simply could not endure the increasing light, and I became unrecognizably intermingled with it, my energy spreading out in all directions. Devouring the room. Penetrating the walls.
I smelled cedar, and then all at once, other light beings began to enter the room—some passing through like bolts of lightning, too fast for me to discern. Then I felt heat, and as I turned around, I saw the light body of Papa. Behind him lurked three indeterminate lights like courtiers to a king, but none of them moved close enough for me to decode.
In the next minute all was gone. The candle was burned down to its end, and dawn was arriving in the room. The cream-colored walls were solid again, and my body swaying in the pine rocker felt as fragile as a thin shell that could crack at any moment. My mind was blank. I began moving silently into the day, trying to determine if what happened was a dream, a hallucination, or a true spiritual message.
As I got up from the chair, my body felt awkward, foreign. On my first clumsy step, my knee buckled and I fell. Pressing up, I staggered to the shower, one foot in front of the other, but I did not feel the itchy yarn of the carpet or the coolness of the cracked tile floor. The hot water pelting my chest brought some feeling back, and I noticed that my muscles were sore. I’m not sure how much time passed, but the pulsing water was purifying me somehow, and I just stood there under its umbrella. When I emerged from the shower, I was more awake but still disoriented. My skin was bright pink from the temperature of the water, and I’d forgotten to wash my hair. I had trouble holding a cup of tea—my hand lacked solidity. The feeling was nothing I had ever experienced before—not the grogginess of sleep or the unsteadiness of a hangover; my body was unfamiliar territory. I thought eating something might help, but the onion bagel I burnt in the toaster had no taste.
That day when I arrived at yoga class, my friend Sue looked at me with a raised eyebrow.
“You okay? You are wearing the same clothes you had on last night.”
Before I could tell her about the psychic, the cat, and my luminescent visitors, Raj introduced a guest to the class.
“This is Mary. She is a masseuse.”
Massage therapy as prescribed medical care and an acceptable profession was a couple of decades away, but after my experience the night before, I needed the grounded-ness that touching the physical body gives, and welcomed the distraction from my confusion.
Mary talked to us about how useful massage is for relaxing the muscles and calming the nervous system. She was factual, technical, but there was mischief in her eyes as if she was breaking some solemn vow by sharing the information. And there was something mysterious about her.
When Mary asked for a volunteer, she looked straight at me. My normal reaction to direct eye contact was to avoid it—look down at the floor or off into space. But for some reason, I didn’t avert my eyes. Mary’s golden-brown eyes reminded me of that beckoning flame, and for some undefined reason, I stepped forward.
Sue smiled and Raj nodded, but no one was more surprised than me to be standing in the front of the class about to assist Mary the masseuse. I was fully aware, yet still semi-conscious. And I wasn’t afraid.
Like a snake that sheds its skin into new life, I was reborn. I saw a profile of the old me standing across the room, my outline melting into the air until it disappeared just as Papa’s image had the night he died. I expected my life would continue to be a series of contradictions, but I no longer needed obscurity for protection.
Copyright © 2007 by Cheryl Caruolo