Submitted by Erica
Last week I went for the second time this summer to a spiritual retreat in Lily Dale, New York. Lily Dale is a rather unique spot. It’s a tiny little village in western New York, near Buffalo, with small gingerbread Victorian and clapboard cottages all crowded together, most with luxuriant gardens.
Lily Dale is known as the “town that talks to the spirits” as it was called by Christine Wicker who wrote a book about it a few years ago. It’s the home of the Spiritualist Church, a uniquely American spiritual movement that started in the 1800s. The core belief of Spiritualism is that the dead are among and we can talk to them. Seances, spirit photography, ectoplasm and other ghostly manifestations became the rage all over the country at the time and were a huge phenomena on into the 1920s when the movement was discredited because phony mediums were ripping people off.
Despite the frauds and their controversial beliefs, spiritualists aren’t crackpots. From the beginning they were admirably devoted to civil rights and individual freedom, supporters of women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. Non-denominational, with no fixed beliefs other than in life after death, they accept members from all religions, and are egalitarian, running the town as a cooperative. Their two churches have no ministers. Lily Dale is set on the original one hundred acres bought by the Spiritualist Assembly back in the 1800s, so you can walk up and down all the streets in about an hour.
Lily Dale looks miniaturized, as though it’s inhabited by little people, though actually most of the residents are on the large side. Mediums love to eat. Vegetarianism hasn’t arrived at Lily Dale yet and neither has Pilates. In order to buy a house in Lily Dale you have to be a member of the Spiritualist Church, and most houses have signs advertising readings. There are twice daily “message services” at the “inspiration stump” in Leolyn Woods, a old growth forest with a pet cemetery and fairy houses built by children, where mediums give messages to people from their deceased relatives. I went to a couple but found them pretty hokey. Most of the messages were of the “you’re doing great, keep following the life path you’ve chosen” variety; nothing juicy like, “yes, your wife is having an affair with your brother in law.” None of the mediums ever called on me to give me a message, probably because they didn’t want to be bothered by my mother who would probably have said, “you can’t possibly believe in this stuff.”
I stayed at the Maplewood, a hotel that’s remained the same since the 1800’s. You feel like you’ve gone back in time at the Maplewood. It’s definitely not the Days Inn. The keys are metal, not plastic cards, the reservations are on a huge sheet of paper not on a computer, and there are no TVs or phones in the rooms. The Maplewood has a huge front porch with rocking chairs all in a row, facing Cassadaga Lake. On my first morning I walked outside in my bathrobe as soon as I woke up so my doggie, Shadow, could pee, and saw that all the rockers were occupied by Tibetan Buddhist monks in maroon robes. They’d recently arrived from Dharmsala in India to make a Mandala, which unfortunately I had missed. The other porch rockers were occupied by a variety of regular folks, from a big guy who looked like a trucker, to an elderly couple from New Jersey, to a systems analyst who was planning to analyze the mysterious photos taken by an Australian woman who had snapped pictures from the porch at night of dots of light in the trees that she blew up into ghostly images, some of which looked like floating orbs and others exactly like fairies. Maybe it was because Lily Dale was in the middle of nowhere, but the pretentious holier than thou spiritual types I’d run into at other retreats were nowhere to be found. The visitors and residents alike seem perfectly normal, although they believe in ghosts, fairies and spirits. I suspended my usual cynical disbelief to embrace Lily Dale since it immediately had a soothing effect on me.
I really loved being able to leave the privacy of my room to sit in the front parlor or on the porch with whoever happened to be hanging around. After dinner I’d hang around with a variety of interesting folks. As soon as I got home from Lily Dale I felt very depressed and isolated. I realized how lonely I am at home, where I live alone, with no one to talk to on a regular basis. I would love to live in a place like Lily Dale, where I could have my own space, but know that there would be friendly people around when I wanted to socialize, right outside my door. I guess that’s what retirement communities offer, but without the charm and quirkiness of Lily Dale. Divorce throws you into a life on your own, often a very lonely life if you’re older and your kids are gone—and you don’t have a job and work at home like I do. There has to be a new way to live but I haven’t discovered it yet. I’m going to start looking. I’ll let you know what I find.
Erica Manfred is the author of He’s History You’re Not, Surviving Divorce After 40. She has written for Cosmopolitan, New York Times Magazine, Ms., Parenting, Women’s Day, and Bottom Line/Personal. She currently runs a women’s divorce support group in her hometown of Woodstock, New York