New Year’s Eve brought with it a hard truth: I hadn’t completed my New Year’s Resolution for 2016: figuring out the Meaning of Life. Maybe it has something to do with how I entered the year. The previous New Year’s Eves were blemished by open-mouthed kisses with four different men, each of whom wound up disappointing, and being disappointed in return. Last year was an especially disappointing kiss with an especially disappointing person. So I sat crosslegged on my bed this December 31 watching The Power of Myth, texting a friend, dodging the texts that asked if I was planning to emerge from my cave, and responding to the ones that didn’t seem to care where I was.
After avoiding that fate again, I decided to begin the hunt in 2017 — I’m persistent — by working my way backward. On January 1, I spent the day with with members of what is either a religion, a cult, or both: The Harmony Grove Spiritualist Association in California.
I am in Escondido, California, just an hour from the Mexican border. Nestled on 13 acres of open land at the end of a dirt road, it’s not easy for a first-timer to locate, which forces a rookie like me to explore the surrounding area.
For anyone with a drop of jaded blood in their body, the picturesque Escondido is slightly nauseating. The town is carved into a desert mountain, and the closest place I can find to park is the Elfin Forest, a place where one half-expects a fawn to jerk you off before you begin your hike. Nearby, small bands of post-grads sip thick green something from non-biodegradable cups, and I speak briefly with a middle-aged woman guarding the Elfin Lodge (really, a small cabin filled with taxidermic owls), where she cheerily hands me several pamphlets before returning to yelling at her son on the phone. I find what I’m actually looking for — a port-a-potty to misfire piss into.
Spiritualism is a religion that’s very American, female, and white, so I’m not too worried about blending in. After it first sprung up in the mid-1800s, spiritualism evolved from the more flashy, seance-focused spectacle and the infamous Fox sisters, early celebrity mediums who later came out as phonies. After the suffragette movement nearly swallowed spiritualism whole, attending camps like Harmony Grove became more popular than sitting in flashy amphitheaters run by hucksters, and the practice quieted itself to a “science, philosophy and religion” that meets every Sunday. This particular Sunday, the roads leading to the camp are closed, and so I walk 45 minutes hoping for the best.
Since its founding in 1896, the Native American grounds of Harmony Grove in the form of Harmony Grove Village have become very gentrified. It’s now a sterile, Stepford ticky-tacky development intended for white families who don’t want to clog their children’s Aryan lungs in the city. Very un-spiritual. I weave down Starry Night Road, Country Living Way, and Coffee Bean Lane, somehow surviving the hike without retching. My spirit is being drained, so I really need to get to this camp ASAP.
And finally, I see it, down a hill and off to the side of what I thought was the end of a road: 13 acres with several small cabins, temples,, and a patch of scorched earth.
As soon as I turn onto the property, a school bell rings from the building I’m looking for. It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday, and it’s time to connect to the universal spirit at the Harmony Grove Healing Temple.
“I wasn’t expecting to see so many people on New Year’s Day,” says Natasha Church, the associate minister (I’ve changed all the names). “But I’m glad that I do.”
The thin program, wooden floors, hymnals, still-lit Christmas tree, and framed novelty houseware from HomeGoods make the temple feel like a combination of the Protestant church I grew up attending and my grandmother’s house, which I also grew up attending. There are 40 lawn chairs set up before a small podium, where the two associate ministers chat quietly before the service. The spiritualist church’s reputation of being majority holds strong in Harmony Grove: There are three or four men who filter in through the service and one male medium on their board, but every person who speaks or heals this Sunday is a woman, middle-aged or older, and smells incredible.
A woman with a wide smile and a million scarves turns and passes me a notebook. “Did you get the healing book yet?” she asked. I hadn’t. Scribbled in handwriting that reminds me of my aunt’s are short lists of who I’m assuming the people assembled want healed. It’s mostly husbands, wives, children, and the Harmony Grove community. I want to write, “Satanic forces are at work here,” but I don’t, because my other New Year’s resolution was finding some self-control. The temple is filled with women (most of whom seem to know each other), one extremely asthmatic dog, and a few loners like myself. People are friendly, so I try to reciprocate.
About half the seats are filled when we sing the first and only hymn of the 90-minute service, sung a cappella. We stumble at first, then start again before Natasha begins a full-body meditation. There are rules: We say “spirit” instead of God. We don’t have written responses in the program. We meditate and listen to scratched CDs between healing ceremonies. I close my eyes. The room is too small to keep them open.
“Breathe in this gentle earth energy, and let it flow through your body, and let it fill your every cell,” she says, waiting for the deep inhale of thirty-odd people before continuing. My hand twitches, hoping that Maurice, the woman who sitting next to me, doesn’t notice the running recorder on my phone. “And now, let the earth energy flow out the top of your head, sending it toward the heavens with love.”
Natasha follows the first meditation by playing “Imagine” by John Lennon, and the women mumble the lyrics under their breath with a placid happiness of which I am not capable. It’s something to strive for; it’s why I’m here.
“And now we will be bringing out the healing benches to anyone who would like a healing,” she informs us. “If you don’t, that is okay, and know you are being healed from where you sit.”
This is the first decisive break from anything I’d known outside of a yoga class or Sunday school, and three women rise from the front row to get their bench. These are the healers.
Before I get up, I watch as different members of the church sit on the healing bench, eyes closed, and completely still for several minutes as the healers wave their hands in slow, deliberate movements around their bodies. Each healer was her own style — one remains still and waves her hands from the back, the oldest moves slowly in a circle around the healing recipient (healees?), and the one in the center makes a show of circling in quicker motions, kneeling to the ground and waving hands upwards. She sticks the landing by putting her hands on the member’s shoulders and whispering something in her ear before they return to their seat for further meditation.
Who you wind up getting to clear your toxins is a crapshoot, and I get the springiest healer. “Is it okay if I touch your shoulders?” she asks, touching my shoulders. I say yes and close my eyes and try to sit up straight. My back starts to ache as the thin whistle of hands pass my head over and over. Soon it’s over, and my head aches from straining to pull my spine out of its usual twist.
We receive “messages” from four mediums lined up in a row, where each takes a turn feeling the energy of a room, then turns to one of us and saying, “The young lady in the black sweater, can I approach with a message?” Uh, yes you can, honey. I am told I have a world-weary sadness about me, and that my spiritual guides want to pull me out of it. Maybe there’s something to this.
Then we listen to “You Raise Me Up” by Susan Boyle. People are genuinely moved, and I feel like an asshole. It’s gonna be hard work for those spiritual guides.
Before we are excused to the fellowship hall for an Asian food brunch and readings from Harmony Grove mediums, Natasha brings up our speaker, fellow Associate Minister Julia Brunch, who wants to be like her three amazing rescue dogs —- Bailey, White Kitty, and Jezzy — when she grows up.
In spite of the Hallmark introduction, Julia is a business-minded badass who speaks on the new year, mostly with regard to “rebuilding from the fire.” I spend the first five minutes of her speech thinking this is a metaphor, but she’s referring to the rubble of the buildings outside. A massive fire swept the camp in 2014, destroying the homes of 20 out of 40 residents and demolishing the old church. Julia is clearly deeply spiritual but equally practical, and she is the president of the Harmony Grove Spiritualist Association and a professor at San Diego State. She spoke of the frustrating circumstances surrounding breaking new ground on a church site after 120 years in existence, thanked those in attendance for their patience, and explained how “spirit always had another plan for me.”
Like any church, offerings are collected and I deposit a few limp bills into the basket. Unlike most churches, the mediums bless the money by raising it to the heavens, which seems both like too much and something that I want to do when I get my paycheck. Associate Minister Natasha tells us that healing bears are for sale, and she’ll meet us in the fellowship hall.
I do not know what a healing bear is, but I want two and brought cash. Natasha greets me and notices that it’s my first time there, and I feel like a tourist asking about the healing bears and wonder if it’s possibly what it sounds like it is, and she gestures to the Christmas tree. Sure as shit, theres a number of tiny, cheaply manufactured teddy bears in a myriad of colors plopped on its branches, two for ten bucks, with a tag that reads:
“This Healing Bear was blessed with Love and Healing Energy For you at Harmony Grove Spiritualist Association.”
I get two, and Natasha is thrilled. “You know, these things are amazing,” she tells me. “We had a dear friend who was stabbed once and we mailed them one of these bears, and sure enough, they got better.” One of the healing bears loses its eye within an hour of our union, but I’m glad I have them. There is something very nice and a little sad to me about the bears because I do think they were blessed with Love and Healing Energy and I do think the people who blessed them firmly believe in the bears and the blessings. I don’t feel bad loving them, because there’s never been any wars or casualties caused by spiritualism.
In the courtyard, just beyond the rubble, is the seance room, which my new friend explains to me is rare to enter. This seems to be the only piece of the 1800s spiritualism that has stuck with Harmony Grove; everything else, from the healing temple to the meditation garden, seems to be firmly rooted in peaceful gathering and middle-aged women who smell amazing.
The Chinese food is great, the coffee is awful, and I’m given a quick one-two treatment from the mediums before I’m sent back down Coffee Bean Lane to the Elfin Forest where I parked my shitty car. The first medium I sit with, in the middle of the fellowship hall cafeteria along with all the other mediums, is wonderful. She says things that, while vague, resonate and inch me closer to wanting to keep my healing bears close. I am embarking on a new and unique project, my work will not be understood by everyone, but I must persist with it and accept that work that resonates with some people. That kind of sounds like a reading that Joey Ramone would get, so I’m into it. She says that I used to be more in touch with my spiritual guides, which if I’m being honest isn’t too far from the truth. I’m in, baby, I hear it and whether it’s true or not, I want to believe it. I really, really do.
Natasha and another medium chat at the table over Chinese food, explaining that they won’t be reading that day.
“Too much noise,” one says. “I can’t focus. Even when I do readings in my house, all I can think about is the dogs.” There are lots of dogs and women in this fellowship hall, a veritable bitch house. Natasha slides me the ticket necessary to receive a reading, and encourages me to get a second.
I approach Julia, the badass spirit queen who is going to rebuild a church and loves her rescue dogs. She takes my hands and it’s very different from the enlightenment that I hated to admit to myself I’d felt more strongly than anything else all day. I wish I’d taken a few more minutes to stew in the perfumed juices of the first reading, but spiritual hindsight is 20/20.
“Has anyone ever told you that you could be a medium?” she asks.
No. “Yes, many times.”
She nods. “I had a feeling.” She goes on to tell me that these powers are not to be disregarded.
“Were you raised in a religious household?”
Not really. “Sort of.”
She nods. “I had a feeling.” If this is my first step toward a spiritual journey, I’m told, I must be willing to break away from the conventions I was raised under, keep the tenets I felt strongly about, and keep searching for the rest … at Harmony Grove, maybe. Keep searching at Harmony Grove. But back to the medium stuff, you’ve really got to get those powers under control. Did you know we offer courses on mediumship in the spring? Check the website in a month. You’ve got to learn to hone those powers.
I’m ready to go home.
I decide to take Julia’s advice: I take what I want from the day and leave the rest. I leave the asthmatic dogs and the crumbled church and the blessed money and the upselling disguised as a reading, and I take the healing bears and the Joey Ramone reading and my message, and I get the fuck out of the Elfin Forest.
The thing is, I might go back. There is something so alluring about the idea of a religion that isn’t as tired as the one most of us grow up in that make places like Harmony Grove seem vital … though the same can be said of Scientology, at least in its early days. It can feel worth it, because if you’re wasting your time and money with amazing-smelling middle aged women in the middle of the woods, it’s your goddamn time and money and amazing-smelling perfume … and it’s not a terrible way to waste time, all things considered. And a better way to start a search for the Meaning of Life than making out with some disappointing boy.Photos via Jamie Loftus