Originally published Oct. 28, 2011 | Link to original
Dear Friend and Reader:
Being an astrologer is sometimes like being a metaphysical minister. People assume we have a connection to the other side, and many of us do. Practicing astrology helps people enhance their subtle senses. There is a need to reach a little beyond the obvious, into the unseen, and this gradually helps us open doors. More significantly, astrologers are presumed to be open-minded about things that other people won’t believe in, or won’t go near. We hear about a vast diversity of human experiences, including plenty that people would never tell their therapist.
In truth, it’s only a short hop from studying these mysterious charts, and the lives of both the living and the dead, to direct encounters with the spirit world. I understood this was the reason why a young mother approached me one evening in a bar on Vashon Island in Washington State, and asked me if I had any experience dealing with haunting or possession.
I asked if there was a child involved. The answer was yes — her young daughter. The mother believed some kind of spirit occupying their home had been coming through and tormenting her daughter, but the child had other problems.
She said the spirit contact didn’t happen all the time, only periodically. I suggested that if things got worse, they get the child out of the house immediately, since children, especially those with any kind of psychic or emotional disturbance, make an easy foothold for certain kinds of entities.
She asked me to visit the house, and I agreed. This turned out to be located on the property where the old Jesus barn was — a barn that had the word Jesus painted on the front exterior. Everyone knew this place, and when the barn collapsed and was torn down, it lived on in memory. Things don’t change fast on Vashon. One of the odd mannerisms of islanders was to give directions suggesting that people “turn right where the Jesus barn used to be.” The grounds had a strange feature: a sinkhole into the Earth. I mean a hole so deep and wide that people would dispose of old washing machines and refrigerators by throwing them into the hole.
Historically, there was one other oddity: decades earlier, there was a boxing ring on the property. There was a tradition that when two neighbors had an issue, they would settle it with a bare-fisted fight in the ring, as everyone watched. Learning this bit of history gave me a clue what was under the laidback, extremely mellow passive aggression that can manifest on the island.
The next day I met her and her partner there. The house was enormous — ridiculously large for a family of three. But it also felt cramped at the same time. It was cold and dark. The family would huddle in the kitchen, which was kept warm by a wood stove. In the 1960s it was occupied by a cult. She showed me a kind of attic off of the second floor that had been decorated with satanic graffiti on the walls. In 40 years, nobody had bothered to paint it over. It was vile stuff, laden with hatred and negativity.
The child’s room, on the second floor, felt cramped and strange. I repeated my warning: if anything else happens to the kid, get her out of here fast. I was concerned because the descriptions of what was happening were evidence of a classical poltergeist situation: moving objects, slamming doors — and an emotionally stressed, weakened child. The relationship can eventually break the integrity of the child and result in a situation of actual possession.
Within the space of the home, the haunting manifested the sensation of fake cobwebs on Halloween, only energetically, clinging to everything. And there was the weird feeling of the house being very large and very small at the same time. The place was rundown and untidy — which is an invitation for dark spirits to take up residence.
A few weeks later I got a phone call. The child had come under severe attack. The couple wanted to move out. The kid was with her father, in a safe space. Having taken these precautions, what should they do next?
I gave them an escape plan: put a blue light bulb in every fixture in the house, flood the house with frankincense smoke, pack and get out.
I said use resin incense (it’s much more pure than regular incense) burn it on charcoal pads, and keep it going. These are not solutions — but they will buy you some time. They had taken the frankincense part seriously — they had a little furnace going in a cast iron pot.
I came over that night. The house was glowing blue. The sweet-smelling smoke was practically seeping from the doors and windows. They were packing their belongings into boxes and suitcases and had moved out by the next day. I never heard from them again.
I am not an expert on the subject of haunting or possession, so I cannot say I know what actually happened. Were this to have persisted as a discussion point between us, or had this seemed any weirder than it was, I would have likely referred them to someone better equipped to handle the situation, on a psychological or spiritual level (best with someone who understands the overlap). I was aware there were other circumstances involved, including the mental state of the adult caregivers. At least they had the sense to inquire what they should do. I designed my suggestions to be harmless even if I was wrong. If a physical space is a source of stress, it’s usually a good idea to leave, if one wants to stay healthy. We’re so accustomed to stress that we tend not to notice it. Noticing is the first step and choosing is the second.
I would add one other take-away. Society only sanctions this kind of possibility in movies. Just about everyone knows it’s real. And there’s a denial factor. So this is a source of tension, especially since contact with the nonphysical happens frequently and may be getting more commonplace due to something called ‘the quickening’. I propose we create a safe space to have the conversation.
A Vast World of Ghosts
Early in my astrological career, I was thrown a number of difficult cases involving the deaths of people close to my clients. Most of the deaths involved girls or young women, in two cases mothers who had recently lost children. One day my phone rang and it was a young man whose girlfriend had just killed herself. They were both in their 20s. I took the basic data, including her chart data, and made room in my schedule for him to come over that day.
He was the one who walked in on the scene three days after she shot herself. Part of the trauma was discovering the gruesome vision of her bloated corpse. He was sad and grieving, but he was also grounded and realistic about what had happened. Suicide always comes with the ‘what if’ factor, but he didn’t seem to be blaming himself. We read the astrology and talked about some of the emotional issues involved.
My instincts told me that the most important thing we could do was create the space for a clear goodbye; for a completion. So we walked from my first office, located in a little corner of Rosendale, NY, up a hill with a view to the west. This is the hill that’s over the healing cave I call the Chironian. We sat on the edge of a cliff above a sheer drop into some very deep cement mines, looking west toward the Catskill Mountains.
It was a warm spring evening. We sat up there and watched the Sun set, talking about her life and hanging out with the memory of who she was. The long, slow conversation came with a strange, otherworldly feeling as we watched the horizon sitting on the edge of a cliff. I was hanging out with this young guy who had just gone through this loss, and been confronted with the stark reality of death. It was a pure human-to-human encounter, set on some outpost of time and space where just he and I existed.
I was no longer an astrologer, but his companion on a journey through the unknown — and this taught me a lot about how to think of my clients.
We parted ways that evening. Later that night I was back in my apartment, where I lived with my two cats, Ling Ling and William Pen. I had a neighbor across the hall, who was out of town. I was cat sitting for her, so I had her door open and the cats could all roam freely around. I had also been doing some work up in the attic, and a door into the ceiling was open, with the ladder dropped down. It was about 2 am and I was alone in the house.
Suddenly I felt a presence, as if the space had changed. It was suddenly much larger. Imagine you’re sitting in an ordinary living room, then you recognize that it’s on the floor of a stadium. That’s how it felt. Everything had opened up, as if the whole building had been thrust into a different dimension.
It felt like there were many, many presences, as if hundreds of people were scurrying around in both apartments and up in the attic. I was not even vaguely frightened or creeped out.
It was just a really interesting feeling, and I embraced their presence with an open heart. I checked in with my cats — they were acting nonchalantly. So were my neighbor’s. I knew that if the cats did not sense danger, I was not in danger. Animal senses are usually sharper than those of people, and they extend further out to both ends of the spectrum. They have a keen sense of whether they are safe.
This is one reason why certain practitioners of the psychic arts have what are called ‘familiars’ — specially designated animals who they keep nearby. (My cats and I had an understanding that this was part of their role.) They provide a sense of grounding as you move through the dimensions, including grounding in one’s identity and present space-time.
Then I felt the presence of his girlfriend. I was not scared — I was moved, almost to tears. I cleared off my couch for her, the one where I would usually sit when doing readings. I sat where my clients would usually sit, on a folded futon couch near the window. The first thing I did was welcome her. I made it vividly clear that she was welcome. I lit a candle and treated her just like I would treat any client, being present for her. We did not exchange words, only the sense of one another’s presence. I sat there with her and lovingly acknowledged her existence and her life.
Gradually the sensation faded. Her presence slowly departed and the dimensional opening seemed to seal back up. I was now back in my normal apartment, having had a rather unusual experience. Nothing quite like that ever happened again, though a lot of interesting things happened on that land.
Do They Know They’re Dead?
I have a tradition of doing a nude photo shoot every year in a cemetery, often around Days of the Dead. It’s difficult to make these original. The nude-woman-in-the-cemetery is one of the most played-out clichés of photography students. It’s easy to do badly.
For a while I was signed on as a photographer for Find-a-Grave, the Facebook of dead people. It’s one of the basic websites that bigger sites like Wikipedia link into, so that in the case of a notable dead person, there is a photo and location of the grave. But many other graves are listed.
One day I got a request to locate and photograph a certain grave in the Old Tongore Cemetery, located out near the Ashokan Reservoir. The Old Tongore Cemetery is very old, and not very large. I was looking for the grave of a woman named Sarah Ann Christiana who had died early in the 20th century. It took three separate visits to the cemetery to find the grave — including two searches with the neighbor of the cemetery. Finally I found the old guy who had the grave records, a farmer who lived in the small hamlet of Tongore. He looked up that particular name and told us where to find it. The weird part is that we had walked past that spot many times and not seen the grave.
My fourth visit to the cemetery was to take photos early one Sunday morning in November. It was a beautiful sunny day — the last warm day of the year. Old Tongore seemed to be the perfect place to go for the project. I was starting to become old friends with the place. I had recruited one of my most trusted models, Heather Fae Speaker. We were working very early for two reasons: the first was to get long light, with the Sun close to the horizon. The second was for security. If you’re going to photograph nude in a cemetery, it’s a good idea to do it when others are not likely to be around.
We went to Sarah Ann’s grave, which was under a beautiful tree in the last row, on the east end of the cemetery. I set up my cameras. Heather Fae undressed.
The moment she sat down on the ground her comportment changed: her body language, her facial expression and the feeling of her presence. I looked at her and I knew what was going on.
“Can you feel them?”
“Do they know they’re dead?”
She shook her head no. I knew to ask because this is a common phenomenon: people often die and they don’t know it. They can be caught in a hologram between the worlds, a kind of mental pattern they cannot let go of. They think they’re alive. Maybe they get up and get dressed every day in an endless cycle of repetition. They live what feels like a life, but nothing ever changes.
That’s the problem with this world: often, the dead don’t know they’re dead, and the living don’t know they’re alive.