I'm somewhere on the outskirts of the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, eager to test my thesis that a visit to this 110-year-old psychic conclave is the perfect antidote to a summer of high winds and higher anxiety. The way I see it, there's no better balm than having one's prospects divined by trained seers who live and work in a cluster 34 miles north of Orlando.
There's only one problem: I'm lost.
A bunker-like restaurant that's closed for business dominates my vision; in the distance, I can almost hear the hum of cars on I-4 as they zip past Exit 116. If anybody ever needed guidance mystical or otherwise it's me right now.
A cell call for help confirms what every spiritual seeker wants to hear: I'm really, really close. (If you're going, learn from my mistakes. Take Exit 114 instead of 116.) A few minutes later, a white Volvo pulls up, and I'm met in the middle of nowhere by Lawrence Damasio, treasurer of the community's governing body, The Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association. Tall, ponytailed and in his 30s, Damasio is a practicing medium one of the certified professionals who make Cassadaga their home. But he's not working today.
Instead, he's volunteered to show me around the grounds a private version of the camp tours that are held for the public every Saturday afternoon. We form a two-vehicle motorcade, and I get my first look at Cassadaga, a 57-acre plot of old-Florida-style houses and irresistibly quaint public buildings. The roads are narrow and the tree cover thick, even in the aftermath of two hurricanes.
Parking on the shoulder of a side road, we walk to the bookstore/welcome center, which despite its sleepy appearance is the hub of Cassadaga's soul-massaging activities. The front area is devoted to a gift shop that stocks products targeted to the cosmically attuned set: crystals, oils, ch'i prayer bells, amethyst marbles. Occasionally, the sales clerks on duty venture out onto the porch to cop a smoke.
In an anteroom, visitors can have their auras photographed ($11 and up, though the base price advances to $27 if you want to have your chakras analyzed). A white-haired woman is seated in front of the computerized processing system; an animated screen saver identifies the active application as "AuraMatic." Her name is Nellie (no surnames, she requests), and Damasio introduces her as a student in the training program that all mediums must complete before doing business on the premises. Nellie, Damasio says, is "on her last legs" of the process. I know what he's trying to say.
We all strike up a conversation about mediumship, religion and professional ethics. Nellie, who has been studying here since 1997, explains that the camp mediums are honing what the Bible calls "gifts of spirit"; it's a pure form of practice, one that involves no tarot cards, palm readings, pendulums or crystal balls. (For such accoutrements, one must patronize the other spiritual entrepreneurs unsanctioned by Damasio and his organization who do business across the street and out of the neighboring Cassadaga Hotel.) Damasio stresses that Cassadaga's activities are church-based, with regular services held at the Colby Memorial Temple just a few blocks south. Cementing the connection with "legitimate" religion, he points to a flier that advertises a weekly Bingo night. Bingo? With psychics? Well, there are certain people who seem to win all the time, he reflects.
Sometimes the gift of clairvoyance isn't so much fun. Nellie says that she knew the space shuttle Challenger was going to explode but she wasn't a spiritualism student back then, just an ordinary civilian. (Her personal résumé includes European residencies and time spent as a heavy-construction estimator.) Asked what responsibility mediums have to warn of impending disasters, Damasio invokes Sept. 11. With all of the red flags our government chose to ignore, he questions, would the protests of a few psychics really have made a difference? I can't vouch for his abilities as a telepath, but he deserves an "A" in political science.
Behind us is a blackboard that lists the names and phone numbers of the mediums and spiritual counselors who will be receiving clients in their homes this afternoon. I fully intend to seek one out for a psychic check-up, but first, there's time for a leisurely walk about the premises. I'm shown the camp association's meeting room whose plastic table covers buttress its resemblance to a typical VFW hall and the temple chapel, which likewise replicates the architectural feel of a traditional church. But there's a difference: In the rear is a dimly lit séance room, the site of some intense-sounding communication sessions. I'm told that the camp association doesn't really play up these gatherings, for fear of being lumped in with traveling spook shows and other flimflam operations. Still, it's hard not to be intimidated by the red light bulbs that shine down on Damasio as he describes the wonders that have transpired in this room from departed souls reaching out their relatives via song, to gifts of jewelry appearing from out of thin air. Such tales help to explain the title of an educational seminar I had earlier seen advertised on a Cassadaga bulletin board: "Communication With the So-Called Dead 2."
Sunlight suddenly sounds appealing, so we venture back outside for more sightseeing. The two- and three-story homes are all made of hardwood, Damasio tells me, and most are a century or more old. Many of the resident oracles have decorated their property with cute animal statuettes and other outdoor tchotchkes, contributing to an atmosphere of comforting semiseriousness. I can see why so many visitors come to Cassadaga not to have their futures foretold, but merely to bask in its aura of homey tranquility.
Back at the welcome center, I make telephonic contact with a medium or at least his wife, who tells me that the Rev. Don Zanghi will be happy to see me in just over half an hour. With Damasio having released me to my own devices, I grab a quick lunch at the Cassadaga Hotel, finding myself relaxed by its polished woods and airy lounging spaces. (The experience is only marred by the some stale sandwich bread, which cries out for a skilled psychic healer to bring it back to life.)
When the hour is nigh, I find Zanghi's home on the official camp map. Damasio has said that the place is a real museum, and he's right: It's full of collectible dolls and other pieces amassed by Zanghi and his wife, Jeanette. The tasteful clutter continues in the upstairs "work area." Sitting down to have my innermost being probed, I notice a Magic 8 Ball near the center of the table. Zanghi a bearded, balding fellow with an ankh around his neck reassures me that the mass-marketed orb is more of a decoration than a working tool.
I trust anybody with this much crap in his house, so I'm happy to devote $50 and 40 minutes or so of my time to the good reverend a Buffalo native whose path to spiritualism sounds even more circuitous than Nellie's. (Before earning his certification seven years ago, he worked in the martial arts, juvenile detention and animal management.) Zanghi asks what I want out of my session, and the answer is a tall order: I want to know where my life is headed, on both a personal and professional level. And I want to know today. Hey, what Floridian feels differently right now?
He focuses on my aura, picking up messages invisible to my untrained eye. With nary a hint from me, he hits on a few brainstorms that eerily mirror my own thinking of late, especially in the areas of hobbies and continuing education. He also poses specific questions, the better to augment his talents with more straightforward spiritual counseling.
The picture he ends up piecing together, though, is less immediately optimistic than I was hoping for. So I defensively fixate on a variety of mitigating factors like Zanghi's admission that he himself is on his third marriage. (Physician, heal thyself.) Yet his overall message is one of profound comfort. Sensing that I'm currently in a state of some mental turmoil OK, I told him all about it, in nauseating detail he advises patience and the utility of sometimes being an observer of one's own life. When you're at a crossroads, he opines, the worst thing you can do is make a hasty move; you might get run over. His schema for my near future boils down to the recommendation, "Do nothing." I promise to do my best.
At last, someone has given me advice I know how to follow. But in a way, Zanghi's prognosis could hold the key to a full appreciation of the Cassadaga experience. It's certainly the best advice I can give to anyone who's praying that this cruelest of summers will yield to a gentler fall: Go forth and be still. And let the universe do the worrying for a while.
Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Bookstore & Information Center
1112 Stevens St., Cassadaga,