San Diego is a good place to find psychics

I consult a medium to talk to my dead father

“I see a large empty whiskey bottle floating above your head” is how the Reverend Chris Meredith addresses Linda Hackett, who is on the other side of the aisle and closer to the little chapel’s altar than where I sit in its rear right-hand corner. “English Medium” is how the flyer announcing the event this evening describes the animated man now standing and speaking up front. I have been getting nervous that for his observations he may soon select me from the 13 of us in attendance, but at his first words to Hackett, who has never met Meredith, my feeling converts to sheer amazement. Not three days earlier I had sat listening as she talked about the destructive role drinking played in her life.

It’s not as though Meredith is looking at a bedraggled drunk off the streets and is suggesting that Hackett guzzled the whiskey bottle empty before arriving tonight. Nor does she show the physical effects of long years of drinking that some alcoholics do. Hackett, who has asked that her name be changed, is a regular at Bally Total Fitness in Mission Valley, where she once invited me to attend “Boot Camp,” a weekly aerobics regimen. “I’m not in the kind of shape to handle that,” I told her. But Hackett is — and then some. Her friendliness beams at you from blue eyes framed by angular features and short light brown hair.

No, Hackett appears to be the poster child for healthy sobriety. At 39 years of age, she is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and has been taking her program seriously for the past 16 years. She is married to a retired fireman who also belongs to AA. She works as a law enforcement officer herself, specializing in rescue and medical response for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.

On this summer evening, we are attending the gathering the Reverend Meredith calls “Window to the Spirit.” It is being held in a small rectangular building called the Healing Temple, on the Harmony Grove Spiritualist Association’s grounds, which are pleasantly situated in a wooded area several miles outside Escondido. Upon learning of my curiosity about psychic and other paranormal phenomena, Hackett wanted to go with me to the service. Meredith holds it on most Tuesday nights at 7:00 p.m., except in the winter. The setting is a little too remote and bucolic to encourage attendance when darkness comes early in the evenings.Hackett is a firm believer in psychic abilities. At the age of 13, she and her best friend went to a Halloween celebration at her school in Concord, California, where she got a reading from a woman predicting that she would someday be shot. One hopes that someone giving a message like that would have couched it in the playful mischievousness of Halloween. However that may be, one night ten years ago, an intruder in the harborside Holiday Inn, where Hackett was working as a security guard, beat her and shot her in the hip.

Before the injury, Hackett admits, she paid no attention to the psychic message, which included a description of her troubled home life and predictions of her mother’s multiple marriages, her own marriage for the wrong reasons at 19, and the beige color of the uniform she would be wearing at the moment of getting shot. “It was all true,” says Hackett, who since then has avoided psychics because one of them might predict something bad happening to her again. “It makes me nervous. Do I want to live in fear? I enjoy law enforcement,” she says. “I want to be able to go out every day and have a good time at work and not fear that somebody’s going to shoot me or shoot one of my partners. It could be anything. You could walk into a grocery store and get shot. I just want to live my life in peace.”

So Hackett has not come to Window to the Spirit tonight to consult a psychic. Instead, she is hoping that Meredith will relay some communication from her father, dead since 1990. For I have told her that Meredith understands his own work and career to be primarily that of a medium.

“I’ve never met the man,” says Hackett of the father who abandoned her in infancy. In the meantime, her stepfather molested her off and on as she was growing up. Hackett wants to ask her real father lots of questions. “He tried to find me when I was in my teens,” she says, “and my mom wouldn’t allow him to see me. I had a lot of anger then and even when I was first in recovery. Apparently he remarried and had kids. So I’ve got half brothers and sisters out there. I’ve wanted to know why. Who are you? Why didn’t you come get me or come see me? I want to let him know that I don’t blame him for the abuse I experienced but that he needed to be in my life to prevent some of it.

“What my AA sponsor had me do,” Hackett continues, “was to write him a letter, starting with the anger, and get it all on paper. ‘Talk to your dad,’ he said. ‘Tell him what you feel.’ I did that and I put the letter in a coffee can at El Capitan Reservoir and I burned it in the can. Then I took it out and spread it on the reservoir. And that was to signify his ashes. It worked well, because I have become peaceful with him. He had to do what he had to do, but, still, he’s my dad. And I love him. I’ve never met him, but I’ve been told I’m like him — expressions, the way I walk and hold myself, my temper, the way I write.”

In his charming English accent, Meredith tells those who attend Window to the Spirit, “You may not get what you want, but you’ll get what you need.” Tonight Hackett receives no message from her father. But Meredith does claim to see the spirit of her grandmother, long gone, standing by her side as she sits listening to him among the rest of us in the Harmony Grove chapel. “Your grandmother wants you to know that she is proud of you and is proud you found your faith,” he tells Hackett, who, at this mention of a woman who spent as much time raising her as her own mother, begins to weep. She tells me later that she has always felt the presence of both her grandmother and great-grandmother protecting her at dangerous moments. As I listen, I wonder what they were doing when her stepfather was molesting her. But she credits them with often helping her. “My life should have been taken by now,” she says.

I might suspect some embellishment of the truth after the fact, so to speak, but even before tonight’s event, Hackett had told me a story that her mother once told her. Before Hackett was born, it seems, her great-grandmother, on her deathbed, put her hand on her mother’s stomach and said what her mother had not yet learned herself: “You are pregnant with a baby girl. I will watch over her always.”

On this evening, however, Meredith also describes a dog with short brown hair, a curly white tail, and sparkling eyes sitting at Hackett’s side and pawing her. This detail also causes her to tear up. She once had a golden retriever and St. Bernard mix named Brandi she dearly loved. “He described him to a T,” she tells me. “I have a picture of him on my wall, and his eyes always sparkled. He was a happy dog.”

Out of the blue, Meredith asks, “Who is Jimmy? I sense him coming in here. He is around about you a lot these days and is now standing with your grandmother next to you.” Meredith is starting to wind up his conversation with Hackett, after which he will turn to someone else in the room. She cannot tell him who Jimmy is. “That’s all right,” he says, “but you might inquire a bit about him to your family.”

And Hackett does. Her mother tells her the next day that Jimmy was her uncle but that he was killed in a car crash. “Oh, that Jimmy,” Hackett said to her mother. She goes on to tell me, “I thought he was still alive. I’ve recently been talking to my husband about hiring someone to find him, because I wanted to talk to him and find out what my dad was like. So [through Meredith’s mediation] that was my father’s brother coming back to tell me he had already passed. Which I thought was pretty cool, because then I wouldn’t get frustrated at trying to find this man.” Hackett remembers Jimmy because when she was a little girl he had once given her a doll. He had already stepped in to help the family in the years after his brother had left her and her mother.

Before finishing, Meredith also mentions to Hackett a number of details about her life that ring true to her. Not having grasped their significance at the time, I rehash them with her several days later. “He told me that someone in my life takes a lot of chances,” says Hackett. “I’m thinking that’s my husband. He’s 56, and he’s got some illnesses, but he gets on his motorcycle and thinks he’s an 18-year-old. And he drag races with his buddies. One will say, ‘I’m faster than you,’ and they’ll pump it. It’s a testosterone thing. But to me, that’s dangerous. I look at it and say, ‘Will you guys please grow up?’ He doesn’t take care of himself either. And I get on his butt. Then as he bites my head off because I’m acting like the wife where I’m not supposed to meddle, I leave him alone and say, ‘It’s your life.’ But it’s my life too. It’s going to affect me directly.

“Chris [Meredith] told me about my childhood too,” says Hackett, “that it was pretty crazy, no stability, that we moved a lot. God, did we move a lot. And then the house. He told me the back of my house was a total mess.” The reason for the mess, says Hackett, is that she and her husband are remodeling. During the sluggish, frustrating process, they have been piling things in the computer room in the rear of the house.

“Then he said he saw a Catholic symbol next to me and that I was a recovering Catholic. In some AA meetings we joke around saying we’re recovering Catholics, so that was right on. He also said I’m going to be involved in a nonprofit organization to help build something. That’s for the future. He said things are going to get crazy in my life starting in three or four months.”

I go to Window to the Spirit (donation, $15) on one other evening. Informally dressed in beige slacks and a polo shirt showing pleasant midlife girth, Meredith uses persuasive stories and humor to dominate the Healing Temple’s audience of 18 women plus me (one additional man had come on the other evening). His fluid speech is occasionally interrupted (on both nights) by the hysterical laughter of a sixtysomething Hispanic woman sitting on the right side of the room. Meredith acknowledges several of the outbursts with glib retorts but moves on quickly.

He begins each evening of Window to the Spirit with a guided meditation to put his audience in a relaxed frame of mind. Then, as in Hackett’s case, he spends the remainder of the two-hour service directly, and one at a time, engaging participants about their past, present, and future. During most of the conversations, he finds people and a few dogs from the spirit world standing as guides and companions next to those he is addressing. He brings out details of all kinds, ones concerning illnesses, careers, residence locations of relatives, dirty hands from gardening, kidding behaviors and personalities of those who have passed on, financial difficulties, suicides in the family, and childhood traumas. People commonly nod in positive response, but not always. Sometimes they even deny what Meredith is saying. In those cases, he says, it is possible that he is picking up from the spirit world details that actually belong to the lives of other people in the room. If we recognize that one of these details is our own, though he is speaking of someone else, he encourages us to speak up.

For weeks, I agonize over whether to ask Chris Meredith to act as a medium between me and my own father, who died in 1993. In the first place, I know my dad would have frowned on it, undoubtedly calling communication with the dead a lot of “hooey.” By going ahead only to satisfy my curiosity, I feel I will be dishonoring him and the kind of no-nonsense approach to life that he stood for. But people change, Meredith tells me, especially after they have passed into the spirit world. “And anyway, if your father doesn’t want to talk to you,” he says, “he won’t.”

Besides, in this anxiety, am I not admitting something my skepticism denies? A great part of my being concerned about dishonoring my dad, I realize, lies in worry that he might disapprove of my trying to contact him — or, for that matter, any other person no longer alive. But that would mean he still lives in some mode or another that would allow him to still disapprove of me.

Once I make my decision, I try to commit myself as thoroughly as I can to open-mindedness toward everything Meredith will tell me. He has said that he provides all his clients with an audiotape of these, his more thorough, private sessions. Later, after hearing the tape, I can raise all the skeptical questions I want. As a former teacher of philosophy, I am perhaps both the worst and best type of person to give a fair and balanced appraisal of a medium’s work. On the one hand, philosophy represents the most critical component of our learning, while on the other, it encourages a willingness to consider alternatives to normal ways of construing reality.

At a quarter past eight in the morning, I am 15 minutes late for my session, something I explain to Meredith upon arrival — and to myself — as due to heavy traffic on north I-15. When I remembered, while still on the road, that I was losing a portion of the one hour I would pay $75 for, I frantically drove the last winding section of Country Club Drive out of Escondido, past an aromatic chicken ranch, and down a short drop into Harmony Grove’s enclave of oaks.

Meredith owns a house in Harmony Grove, and in a den off to the right of its entrance, we sit down on small divans facing each other over a long, low-lying coffee table. A bonsai tree rests on its surface, and Chinese figurines stand in different niches of the room. Meredith believes that the spirit guide that watches over him is Chinese. I give to Meredith the photograph of my father he has requested I bring with me. As he stares intently at it, I start to get over my initial feeling of preparing to lie back in a psychiatrist’s chair.

He will start with an introduction, Meredith tells me, followed by relaying messages my father wants to give me, and finally providing answers my father has for questions I put to him. Although I expect it later on in the session, I am surprised that Meredith begins his introduction with his eyes closed. At the same time, he moves his dark-haired head vigorously about and speaks loudly, as though addressing a sermon to a large church congregation.

“Over the years in which I’ve been involved in working within the field of mediumship,” he intones, “the people who work with me here from the world of spirit have all tried to get across the point that our life here upon this earth should be viewed as a journey. It is self in search of self, becoming aware…of one’s potential and trying to…bring that potential through interferences like being here in the physical body.…”

But more of these thoughts later. At this moment, I am finding it difficult to pay attention to them, since I want to hear what my father has to tell me. Suddenly the moment arrives and Meredith is saying, “I get the strong impression that your father is very much around and aware of your being here today. As I sense his presence coming in, I feel that this was and is a man that, when he was here in the physical body, he carried a certain aura about him, an aura that people respected, and I also get the impression that some people feared him or were a little bit intimidated.”

And so we begin. Relief envelops me as I detect that there is going to be nothing spooky about this. Although his ecclesiastical manner continues and his eyes (I think) remain shut, Meredith’s speech is otherwise normal. Open curtains allow lots of morning light into the room, and my feet feel a solid connection with the floor.

The major leitmotif of the reading turns out to be that my father is aware of having put, during his physical life, a great emotional distance between himself and other people, including my mother, sister, three brothers, and me. At Meredith’s first words in this direction, my skepticism surges out of its hiding, and I find myself trying to suppress it like Dr. Strangelove grabbing his arm to hold back a Nazi salute. He has drawn on the picture of my father, I think, who, in the photo, sits austerely in a dark suit with his hands folded in his lap. It is one of those photos of a professional man that betrays not a trace of a smile on his face. One similar to it hangs to this day on the courthouse wall in Riverside, where my father sat for 19 years on the superior court bench. At least, I go on commenting to myself, Meredith is not starting with the obvious, which would be to describe a career in the law. Behind my dad in the photo is a bookshelf full of law books.

At the same time that I am harboring these misgivings, it occurs to me that Meredith has read me too, sitting before him in the flesh. “Your father says that you need to be more confident within what you are doing and not, to use my terminology, beat yourself up a lot. You understand? Because he says you tend to go over and over situations. Could this have been done better? Could that have been done differently?”

As he goes on, Meredith asks me, at regular intervals, variations on the question, “Can you verify that?” These moments also seem to bring out the slightest crack between his eyelids, allowing him perhaps to see between them my facial responses to things he is saying. Sometimes I reply in the negative, and then, I notice, the tack of his remarks changes.

Despite my skeptical self-interruptions, Meredith is drawing me into this audience. For my father did, indeed, not allow people to get close to him. Here today I am being told, “He now regrets in many respects your relationship with him, in that there could have been a more emotional connection than there was. This is something that when he passed over to the spirit world he was able to see.”

A little later in the hour, Meredith comes back to similar observations. “He realizes now how austere he could be. But it wasn’t because he didn’t care for you. It was that he had not been brought up knowing how to handle relationships. And he has certainly worked on that on the other side, and I feel that this is something he is wanting you to cultivate, to be more open in the heart. He says that you have a much softer approach to things. But you’re still a bit of a chip off the old block. He does seem to think that you have a lot of your mother in you. Would you agree with that?” I do. “He wants you to know that he has been working diligently to come out of the head and move into the heart.”

Although Meredith has hit on something quite accurate, he never refers to another side of my dad, namely, his great, though reserved, kindness and generosity. The coldness that Meredith does describe at least expressed itself in a polite formality to persons of any age or rank whatever. And within our home, as long as you did not bring up subjects like sex or death, he could be as warm as any human being I’ve known.

“Although he knows that you looked up to him, and there was a certain admiration there,” Meredith continues, “he realizes in looking back that there were many disappointments where you either tried to please or to show yourself and your abilities and your skills as though attempting to live up to that level that your father had set. And he wants you to know that, although it was not said verbally, he was and is very proud of what you have done.”

It is now coming to Meredith that January and March are anniversary months of some sort in my father’s life. “March is the month he died,” I tell him. “March 3. I don’t know about January.” Meredith wants me to ask my mother when she met my father. For further validation, I gather, of his entire mediation here today.

At the end of his life, Dad suffered great physical pain during a slow death from cancer. On doctor’s orders, we gave him morphine. I have said nothing of this to Meredith, but he asks, “Before he passed to the spirit world, was there a time when your father was unconscious? He’s talking about the time as if he were out of it, you see. He knew what was going on, but he says he was out of the body before his physical death occurred. His father and his brother visited him, and it was quite a shock, because I feel that it went a little against the grain of what he presumed was going to happen. So it was quite an eye-opener for him, he tells me.

“Did your father drink?” Meredith has found a touchy subject. “Because he is intimating to me that sometimes he could lose himself in that. He recognizes that that was also a downfall. But it was his way of avoiding issues that he was not prepared to deal with. And he recognizes that there was deterioration in the relationship with your mother that he blames himself for. He says that if he were able to do it over again, he would put your mother on a pedestal because of what she had to put up with. But he recognizes that everything we experience in this life is determined by the choices we each make, and he takes full responsibility for the difficulties that occurred with the family.”

I make nothing more than a nod of agreement, but these words take me back to my teenage years, when Dad came home from work later and later after drinking and playing billiards with his friends at an Elks club. Mom would ask one of us to call the club to send him home for a dinner that was waiting. Once, when he still delayed, she took herself into a corner and cried softly. It was a painful scene.

But now Meredith is asking me about a fall my mother might have taken “if we went back three years ago.” My mother is 87 and she did break her wrist, I tell him, by falling down a short flight of stairs in her home. It seems to me more like four or five years ago. “Your father is talking about this. He does still come very much around her. Your mother must have been a very good cook at one time.” Oh, yes. “Because your father talks about it. And he talks about her creative side too. Would she make things?”

“Yes, she was a seamstress,” I reply.

“Oh, that’s what I want, because he was showing me her sewing and knitting, which symbolically have helped me see it. She was very good with her hands, you see.”

Didn’t I provide Meredith with this detail? I am starting to emerge from the spell his descriptions of the past have cast upon me. Now he turns to the future.

“Who is David?” Out of many students, colleagues, and friends past and present, I’m sure I know a number of Davids. But one does not come to my attention in this moment. “I understand,” says Meredith. “I want you to watch. There is going to be a David who will have connections with the Texas area. This David will be someone that you’re going to connect with, and this will open up a work project for you that will be satisfying. It is something that comes in through your father, and it will be beneficial for you.

“Does the name Barlow mean anything to you?” Barlow is a name that it seems I have always known to exist in the abstract, but it is hard for me right now to imagine it being the name of an actual person. I feel myself starting to laugh, until I suppress it. But apparently Barlow will be another connection for me.

Several weeks later, I am watching a football game on television when the name Barlow leaps out at me. He is a player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Surely this can’t be the connection Meredith has in mind.

“I also feel,” he says, “that your father is going to make his presence known to you as you go through these coming weeks, something significant that is going to let you know that he is certainly around. Okay?”

At which point Meredith opens the session to my questions. I do not have a long list of mysteries that I wished Dad had cleared up before he died. But something else does come to mind. I wonder about any current ability he might have to see into the foibles I’ve exhibited throughout my life. I’m embarrassed to think that he now knows things about me that I could keep so effectively from him while he still lived. “Oh, the things you didn’t know about us when we were growing up,” my brothers and I used to tease my mother.

“Your father wants you to know,” Meredith responds, “that although you may not see it from the vantage point of where you are, these foibles, as you call them, make you the unique person that you are. He says not to be fearful of who you are. But he has come to realize that there is a reason and a purpose behind everything that occurs. He says no two people are the same. He says that you are who you are. He says, believe in yourself and be true to yourself. The foibles are an aspect of you, but not the whole of you. He’s come to understand that if you do the best that you possibly can and that if you do things that are not at the expense of others, you will be fine. Stop living in the past. He says, live in the now.

“Well, we are at time,” says Meredith, reaching down to turn off his tape recorder. “Watch your dream states, because often family members will attempt to connect with us in sleep. I want you to watch where you do connect with your father in dream states. And that will be a reality. From your having made this connection today, there is now a desire for him to let you know the validity of him being around you.

“I leave you with a thought from Richard Bach, who says, here is a test to find whether your mission here upon this earth is complete: If you’re still alive, it is not.”

When Linda Hackett came home from Window to the Spirit, she says, her husband Ron asked her whether the psychic had said anything about him. She told him, “What are you asking that for? You’re not even a believer.”

Ron’s inquiry suggests a misgiving in his own doubt that many skeptics of psychic phenomena have, myself included: “What if there is something to it?” We mild skeptics don’t bother Chris Meredith in the least. “I welcome skepticism; I enjoy it,” he says. But he is not so happy “when you get people who are adamant that they’re not going to accept anything, the attitude where they get defensive. Attitude and intent are everything. One should always go to a reader or a medium with an open mind and not an agenda [like] ‘We’ll see what you can do now.’ With that kind of attitude, people get nothing.”

This point of view reminds me of an old analogy to the problem of whether to believe in God. That problem is like wondering whether a woman loves or will ever love you. If you don’t commit to approaching her in some definite fashion, you will not experience her love. So, goes the argument, if you don’t commit to God in faith, you will never experience Him either. What makes it faith, largely, is that one can never know with certainty that the experience is not illusory.

But to Meredith psychic phenomena and the spirit world are not contents of religious faith. He dissociates his work as much as he possibly can from Christianity, especially, the core of which is belief in a savior. “I see Jesus as a great teacher who came to teach spiritual law,” says Meredith. “He did not come to save us. His dying and coming back were to prove the continuity of life after death. The one thing that we teach as spiritualists is that you are personally responsible for everything that you do upon this earth. And there are consequences for all of your actions. That’s a bittersweet pill for some people to swallow. But it’s what separates us from mainline religion.”

As far as I understand spiritualism from Meredith’s telling, it is “knowledge of spiritual law” that tells us about the spirit world. That knowledge today comes partly from spiritualism’s traditions, which go back at least to the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York, who in 1848 discovered the spirit of a dead peddler from strange raps in their house. The sisters developed ever more sophisticated communications with the spirit, word of their experiences spread rapidly, and committees were formed to test the authenticity of their claims. Enthusiasm became so great that even a governor of New York supposedly participated in the levitation of a table, with himself on it, to prove that the new phenomena were real.

Suddenly many people started claiming to be mediums. Also, definite ideas about the nature of “spirit” emerged, and they gradually formed the core of spiritualism’s ideas. For his understanding of the spirit world, however, Meredith relies not only on this tradition, but on personal experience as well.

“Sometimes I will see spirit objectively like I see you,” he tells me. “More often than not it’s in the mind that we see it, which is as clear as any image you may think of. Sometimes I hear the spirit externally and, quite often, I hear it internally. Lots of symbols come in, and I work in that way.”

Meredith believes that we have a spiritual, or “etheric,” body that is always next to our physical body. At the tops of our heads, the “silver cord” connects these two bodies while we live on the earthly plane. But when we die, our consciousness leaves the physical body and goes across the silver cord and into the etheric body, where it will develop itself further in the spirit world. Meredith says that he can sometimes see a person’s etheric body standing nearby.

“I was brought up in the Church of England up to about 13,” says Meredith. “At 7 years of age, I woke up in the middle of the night and saw people at the bottom of my bed that seemed as solid and real as anybody, three-dimensional, and they just floated through the floor. And from 7 through 13 I had all these different types of manifestations of people appearing to me. Sometimes I would see faces; sometimes I would see only a pair of eyes, sometimes the whole person manifested. I didn’t know these people, didn’t know who they were, didn’t know what was happening at that time. First time it happened, I spent the night in my brother’s bed. I never shared it with my parents. It was something I kept to myself,” says Meredith, who is now 47.

“At 13 I ventured into a spiritualist church. There are many spiritualist churches where I come from, which is Cheshire, in the northwest of England. And I sat down in this church, where probably the youngest person was in their late 70s. There was this little old lady that was a medium. And she told me everything that happened, everything I’d seen, and why things were happening. She didn’t know me from Adam, but she said, ‘You have a natural gift and you’re going to develop this gift and eventually the gift will take you out of this country.’ Of course, at 13 I had no desire to leave my country. But everything that she said did come to pass.”

Meredith says he joined the church, called Duckinfield Spiritualist Church, becoming its youngest president at 19, “and developing these abilities that I now have.” Twenty-five years ago he came to the United States with $1000 in the bank.

The meaning of spiritual law starts with the simple truth that humans are spiritual beings. “We are spiritual beings having a human experience,” says Meredith. “But your religion will have no bearing upon your status in the world of spirit; it’s how you live your life that’s important. Behind every human experience, there is a spiritual lesson. What we’re dealing with is scientific law, and religion is man’s way of trying to understand that which he doesn’t understand. It is a path that he has created. What we’re addressing is how spiritual law governs everything. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an atheist, an agnostic, or whatever you might be, you’re going to move into the spirit world, because there is nowhere else for you to go.

“There are infinite levels of life in the spirit world,” Meredith says. “Each level is what you have attained spiritually and that you will go to.” At death, he believes, people need assistance to move into the new situations they are not accustomed to. Family members already in the spirit world will help them. And they can go to “way stations” until they learn to let go of earthly conditions and attachments and accept their new realities.

“It is very organized,” he says. “Nothing is left to chance.” This point reminds Meredith of a scene in the movie Ghost, with Whoopi Goldberg, in which a man in the hospital is dying, and lots of his relatives from the spirit world have come around. Meredith finds the scene quite accurate. “Often when you see someone in hospital, they are talking about seeing people you can’t see, and you think, oh, they’re only hallucinating. They are actually seeing the family members who have come for them. Nothing is left to chance.”

In the United States, thinks Meredith, people mix up mediumship with psychic work, whereas the English, with their greater concentrations of spiritualist churches (there were 60 of them in Manchester when he was growing up), understand them as more distinct. However, as both my own and Hackett’s experiences with Meredith suggest, the two do flow easily in and out of each other.

“Psychism has everything to do with the physical,” says Meredith. “It deals with your job, with relationships.” When I try to express my understanding of a medium, I tell Meredith that it is a person who communicates to the dead. To which he jabs me, “We are more dead than they are.”

The medium is a vehicle between two worlds, the material and the pure spirit worlds. Meredith says that the psychic is not able to move on to “the next level and communicate with the spirit world. You will probably find that there are more psychics claiming to be mediums than mediums claiming to be psychic,” he says.

At another point in our conversation, when I bring up the function of his work, Meredith says, “I see myself as a sort of psychotherapist, guru, and a medium all [combined] into one, because people do come with different needs. In England the medium seems to communicate with the spirit world and stop there. In the United States, people need a lot of guidance, because America has been so materialistically based that we’ve had to help them become more spiritual. The psychic side is important, but it’s only one rung on the ladder.”

What about palm readers, astrologers, tarot card readers, and other New Age functionaries? Meredith believes that such people do have psychic abilities of varying degrees. They use their particular sciences as tools to facilitate psychic readings. Although some of them might be able to do the readings without these aids, their clients often like to see tangible evidence of the message in things like runes and astrological signs. There were similar phenomena in the ancient world. The Romans did astrology, plus they read the entrails of animals and the flight formations of birds, while the Chinese interpreted cracks in a tortoise shell or the positions of sticks thrown upon a grid.

When I ask Meredith how psychic phenomena work, he asks, “Do I need to explain it? I don’t think there is a need to explain everything.” But he goes on to say where his own psychic powers come from. “The people I work with, the spirit people, can see in your life what lies ahead to a certain degree, not forgetting that we have free will. Your life is not predestined. It’s determined by the choices you make. People in the spirit world bring information to me, make me aware of things that are coming into a person’s life that they need to be aware of.

“When I read for a person, I’m usually reading within a 3- to 12-month period of time. Because if I [give out] something about 12 years from now, it’s not going to be of any use to you. You’re going to forget.

“I do believe there are certain experiences that we are meant to meet in this lifetime. You still have the choice of saying, ‘I don’t want to deal with that. I choose not to go through that experience.’ I may have said to someone, there is this wonderful person coming into your life, and the spirit world is bringing you together. And it may be that they meet that person and decide, ‘You’re not my type.’ They may make some choices that will alter what we’ve seen. That can happen. So when people say, ‘What you’ve told me has not worked out,’ I say, ‘Hang on a minute. Let’s see what you did or what you didn’t do that influenced it.’ And I’ll want to know what the actual wording of what I said was, because, for some people, I say one thing and they hear something else. That’s why I like to go back on the tape and say, ‘Listen to what I actually said.’ ”

An objection to the apparent psychic prediction of things people will do keeps running through my head. Couldn’t it be that such predictions act as a suggestion in the subconscious mind and that a person then goes on to actualize them because the psychic has planted them there?

That is not beyond possibility, Meredith admits, but he doesn’t think it’s too common. “Quite often some things that we do suggest are totally off the wall and are not where they are wanting to be or think they’re going,” he says.

But consider a related event. A North Park woman I talked to went to a psychic who said that her husband had been cheating on her. She vigorously denied it only to have her husband, during divorce proceedings a year later, tell her that he had been cheating on her. When I told Linda Hackett about this during our conversations, she immediately interpreted it as a case of an idea implanted in the woman’s mind that then sabotaged the relationship, thus contributing to the divorce.

People do ask him information about marriages, says Meredith. “You have to be careful in those areas because of lawsuits. And my readings are on tape. So I won’t come straight out and say your husband is cheating or your wife is cheating. I’m quite conscious of the ramifications that can come of something like that. But I remember a situation where I suggested that the marriage wouldn’t last, though it wasn’t put quite that strongly, and the woman told me she went home and tore up the tape. She had just gotten married. And the marriage didn’t last. People don’t always hear what they want to hear.”

For the most part, however, Meredith avoids predicting bad things. And because of that, he has been accused of being too positive. But he can’t always help it. He says that he read for a base jumper one time who went off to jump in Australia the next week, where she hit the mountain and died. “I didn’t see it; it wasn’t shown to me. We’re not all-knowing,” he says.

“There are certain people that I can tell they may not be long upon the earth, but it’s not something I feel most people can deal with. It was said, although I never validated it, that there was a person in Arizona that the one thing he could do was tell you the day you were going to die. And people actually went to visit him. Can you imagine, right on the 15th of March 2007 you’re going to die? Can you imagine the impact of that? You couldn’t eradicate it from your mind. The damage that would do.

“Because I’ve been brought up in this field,” Meredith continues, “and I’ve been around some wonderful mediums in Great Britain and seen some wonderful demonstrations of the gift, there has to be integrity in the work. You’re dealing with people’s lives. And some people hang on to every word that you say. So you have to be very careful.”

Meredith asserts that people choose the types of lives they want to lead — and their own bodies — before they are born, as he did in choosing to be a medium. “Mediums are born, not made,” he says of what he takes to be his own special gift. “This life is about developing aspects of ourselves [that we need]. Some people have come here to learn how to stand up for themselves. So they will place themselves in situations where they will learn to take back their power and become more assertive. You come into this world to embrace a human experience that develops yourself. As I tell my clients, there are no victims in this world. We are all willing participants.

“I had a lovely lady sitting here last week who had all these questions. She asked, ‘Why would someone be born in a place where they starve?’ I said you’re only looking at the physical aspect of this. Look at India, a very impoverished country, physically. Spiritually, it’s rich. ‘Two men look through prison bars, one sees mud and one sees stars.’ ”

I ask Meredith about reincarnation and past-life regression. He says that in his sessions he avoids going into them for the most part, except in unusual cases of relationships that he can see haven’t started recently but have continued from previous lifetimes. Past-life regression is a valid science, he thinks, though it can’t be proven, despite stories about people like Bridey Murphy.

“There are people who will come back, people like Churchill and Patton. I believe Churchill reincarnated because the world war was coming and that he would play an important role in turning things around. Look what happened to Churchill after the war. He went into obscurity. He had done what he came to do. Unfortunately, some people fall into escapism with this. It’s so wonderful to be Cleopatra rather than Mary Smith living down the road with all these problems and bills. That’s why I don’t do psychic fairs, which bring our work down to a base level. We have the psychic junkies who run from medium to medium, psychic to psychic, until they hear what they want to hear. Thank goodness, touch wood, I meet very few of those people. Most of my clients are referrals, people who have a genuine need and want some help.”

Like the family of a crewmember on the airliner that hit the Pentagon on 9/11. The brother called Meredith in the aftermath of the tragedy and brought him a photograph of the dead man without telling Meredith who he was. “As I worked with [the brother], information came through that it was the 9/11 situation, and he broke down,” says Meredith. “It was the first time he had ever done something like this, and he was totally convinced it was his brother. Then his sister came from New York, and then the daughter of the gentleman that passed over, she came, and other members of the family eventually came too.”

“And the dead man wanted to talk?” I ask.

“Oh, definitely,” says Meredith. “The reason why is, in that type of situation there is no closure. He had family he left behind that he had to make his peace with, let them know that he was okay. The number-one priority was to inform them he survived this and help them understand that there is a bigger picture behind all that had taken place, that he is still around and that they’re going to be reunited, which gives a great deal of comfort. You can get on with your life.”

“Some people sit there where you’re sitting,” he tells me, “and start crying their eyes out and they don’t know why. It’s part of the healing process.” Husbands and wives, and parents and children, seeking each other make up much of Meredith’s clientele. “When children have passed over, parents have come. They bring the kids’ toys and the pictures; it’s a very sad thing. I had a Catholic family that came a few times. They had lost two children in a car accident, and we were able to get some communication with them, and it brought a lot of comfort to [the parents].”

San Diego is a good place to find psychics. Many people I talk to in town can direct you to a storefront near their neighborhood that advertises boldly and brightly some combination of the following services: palm reading, fortune telling, crystal balls, clairvoyance, tarot cards, angel reading, past-life regression, and contact with the dead. At most of them, palm reading seems to be the least expensive, usually costing $10. But from what your palm reveals, the reader is likely to suggest that you learn even more through her costlier specialties, those in the range of $40 to $80.

Then there is Lady of the Lake bookstore, a metaphysical shop that keeps a psychic on the premises daily from noon to 6:00 p.m. Here one can find much the same fare as in the storefronts, but with an upscale New Age twist that, depending on the psychic on duty, includes use of astrology, the kabalistic or Rosicrucian traditions, connections to the subconscious mind, “High Magick,” clairsentience, numerology, Eastern and Western spirituality, runes, and amulets.

At Madame Crystal’s, a storefront on Robinson Avenue in Hillcrest, I pay $20 for a two-palm reading from a young black-haired, olive-skinned woman. I ask her whether she’s a Gypsy. “No,” she answers, “I’m Yugoslavian and Cherokee.”

Madame Crystal says she can focus on love relationships, business prospects, or family relations. “Love relationships,” I tell her as I think of an attractive woman named Mary I am getting to know. Madame Crystal stares at my palms and tells me there is a good chance I will have a relationship with Mary. “But,” she says, “you have a black aura in the center of your palms. It should be pink.” This aura will block my path to Mary unless it is changed.

The reason for my problem, I am told, is that someone has put a curse on me. Madame Crystal will remove the curse and tell me who put it on me, or at least the person’s initials. Removing the curse will improve my aura, and the new and better aura will make the relationship with Mary much more likely.

But I must commit today, says Madame Crystal, to having the curse removed. The cost will be $200 to have her remove it. And if she does, I must swear that I will never tell anyone. I reply that I don’t have $200. Not to be dissuaded, she says, “Can’t you go to the ATM?”

People go see psychics for all kinds of reasons. Sharon Crane (not her real name), a Clairemont resident, is an eighth-grade teacher married to a prosperous businessman. They have three children. She is attractive and socially popular. Yet she is a worrier as well, she says. “I’ll go to my psychic probably four times a year. The reassurance I get from her helps me stop focusing on what bad thing might pop up in my life and ruin it.” Crane also admits to following no particular religious tradition. So psychic readings fill a void in her spiritual life. She finds that the most likely moments when she starts thinking of going to the psychic again are when she is forgetting about her goals and has a sense of losing direction.

Not all who seek out psychics are women. Jeff Ragan (not his real name) of La Mesa sees a psychic “once in a while,” he says, to find direction too. Three years ago he lost his job in the computer industry, and a year ago, he and his wife of eight years divorced. “My prospects,” he exclaims, “have turned completely upside down.”

The fact that two of those who explain to me why they see a psychic want to remain anonymous says something about the status of psychic reading in our culture. There is a feeling among us that only the gullible fall for it and that to seek it is not quite rational, as though psychic practice is thorough quackery.

Yet brilliant scholars have studied psychic phenomena seriously, and two world-renowned research institutes are devoted to comprehending it. One is the Society for Psychical Research, in London, and the other is the American Society for Psychical Research, in New York. Presidents of the former have included philosophers C.D. Broad and Henri Bergson and classicist Gilbert Murray. A contributor to the American organization’s development was the great American psychologist and philosopher William James.

Spiritualism, with its focus on people who have “passed on,” seems to meet an even more hostile modern world than purely psychic phenomena. Even spiritualism’s most famous proselytizer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was accused of letting grief from the death of his son warp his good sense.

Since Linda Hackett had gone with me to Window to the Spirit for the express purpose of receiving a communication from the dad she had always wanted to talk to, I am hoping that she will go to Meredith for a private session like the one in which I had him conjure up my own father. She says she wants to, but in the past few days she has started back to work after time off to recover from a shoulder injury. So she feels suddenly busier than she has been for a while and she tells me that she will “go see Chris about that after things settle down.” I get the feeling she will need some emotional space to deal with it.

During my conversations with Hackett, I had asked whether her belief that her father and grandparents still live on makes her consider her own immortality. “I don’t think about that,” she said, “but I feel that I’m going to be taken care of when my time comes. I have no fear of it. It’s funny, I have no fear for me, but I fear for my husband and other people I care about. It’s the loss. I don’t want to lose them. It freaks me out when somebody dies, because I don’t want to let go.”

I think of a woman who came to both Window to the Spirit services I attended and how she said her husband, dead for only six months, had visited her numerous times already. I think of the many other people I encountered there who were seeking contact with loved ones. And I think about how my skepticism about mediumship gradually opened toward desire to hear from my father during the private session with Meredith.

Then I am reminded of the last two paragraphs of the book Bellow: A Biography, in which author James Atlas records parts of an interview with Saul Bellow by English writer Martin Amis. Amis, who recently suggested that Bellow, now 88, might be the greatest American novelist ever, asked him whether he believes in immortality.

“Well, it’s impossible to believe in because there is no rational ground,” Bellow replied. “But I have a persistent intuition…call it love impulses. What I think is how agreeable it would be to see my mother and my father and my brothers again.… The only thing I can think of is that in death we might become God’s apprentices and have the real secrets of the universe revealed to us.”

Amis’s question about immortality follows Bellow’s reading of some remarks by his character in an unfinished novel. Bellow prefaces it with the claim that he has been writing about death all his life. Then he reads: “What I have to say, all I have to say, is that I count on seeing the dead — my dead. When I die they will be waiting for me. I don’t anticipate, nor do I visualize, any actual settings. I can’t tell you what my father will say or my mother and brothers and friends. Very possibly they will all tell me things I badly need to be told.”

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