"Embrace the Mystery" by Joan Marcus

Joan Marcus

Joan Marcus

Essays and stories by Joan Marcus appear in Fourth Genre, The Georgia Review, The Sun Magazine, The Smart Set, Laurel Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Journal, and elsewhere. She is a two-time recipient of the Constance Saltonstall grant for upstate New York writers. She lives in upstate New York with her spouse and daughters and teaches creative writing at Ithaca College. "Embrace the Mystery" is part of an essay collection in progress, Exalting the Weird, about the author's experience during her college years of caring for her terminally ill mother.  

Embrace the Mystery


The psychic was trying to teach us about color therapy. She sat us in a circle on the floor of the student union activity room, turned off the lights, and told us to imagine the color orange. I was a college freshman and fancied myself a good student, but I could already tell I would suck at this. I’d been incompetent right from the start of the workshop — couldn’t see anyone’s aura or open the energy chakra at the base of my spine or even give a decent massage with my small, cold hands. Now Cassandra wanted us to fill our heads with orange, breathe it in and out. That was easy enough, but then she wanted us to guess the diseases that color might treat, as though the knowledge were already inside us and only needed a good nudge to come spilling out. “Just call it out loud,” she told us, and my classmates did. Orange for kidney problems, green for asthma, yellow for depression. As for me, I came up empty every time.

Until we reached the color red. I filled my head with it, livid and wet, and then a word popped into my head.

"Apoplexy!" I shouted.

"Good!" Cassandra cried. "You're definitely in the right ballpark there. Because apoplexy has to do with the blood, right?"

I was thrilled. Relieved, actually, that my intuition hadn't failed me entirely. It hardly mattered that I didn't know what apoplexy was.

Class ended and I returned to my dorm. It was January of 1983 — Winter Term at my small, experimental liberal arts college, a time for decompressing and focusing for one month on a single project. Winter Term relieved the urgency of the academic year and kept the suicide rate down, and most of us got with the spirit of the thing by catching up on light reading or taking unorthodox classes. Psychic Healing Workshop was a popular offering. I'd always considered myself open-minded, and the description in the course supplement made the class sound fun — sort of like a trip to a gift shop that sells geodes and scented oils. But the hodgepodge of occult practices and alternative therapies was starting to get on my nerves.

I found my friends at their hangout in the lounge and gave them my report. It wasn’t unusual for me to return home after an evening of hardcore spirituality to regale everyone with amusing anecdotes. I felt rather two-faced doing this —making jokes at the expense of my classmates and teacher. But then, tossing out clever remarks is pretty much what my friends and I did. We directed our collective ironic wit at everything from Reaganomics to sexual fetishes, so why not psychic healing?  The chromotherapy story seemed gut-bustingly funny in retrospect. "What's apoplexy, anyway?" I asked through spasms of laughter. "What the hell is that?" Apoplexy. Even the word was funny.

I cut class the following night. These three-hour sessions were getting in the way of cooking dinner with my friends in the kitchenette or gathering in someone's room with a bottle of Bacardi. I had a pouty, adolescent urge to avoid missing the fun, and I went with it. I ran into my classmate Mary — a tall, earnest girl in a navy pea coat —  the following morning on my way to the student union. She seemed concerned for me. "You missed class. Are you sick?" she asked. 

"Not really. I'm fine," I admitted.

Mary nodded sagely. "Three students were absent last night," she said. "So Cassandra took a look and told us that Debbie and Paul had colds but you were okay." 

Go figure. Never ditch class on a psychic because she'll know what you're doing, right? I must have been a little spooked by this news, but mostly I remember feeling mortified at having been caught. I know that in that moment, I didn't doubt Cassandra had really and truly exercised clairvoyance to find me. At the most basic level, despite my critical posturing, I was a believer.

A skeptical believer. A believing skeptic. A cynic with caveats, poised between doubt and wonderment like a person on the verge of dementia. This is essentially still true, although it's been twenty years since I've seen a psychic. I believe that most of them are scam artists, I do, but I don't know for certain that they all are. Ask me if Cassandra was a true clairvoyant and I'll shrug. Maybe. She knew I didn't have a cold. Either that or she took a good guess. Then again, perhaps Mary was screwing with me and Cassandra never said any such thing. Mary didn't seem like the mess-with-your-head type, but who knows. I never did discuss the issue with Cassandra when I returned to class — I was too embarrassed and she never pressed me — so we can't know for sure. Believe, then, what you will.

* * *

Belief for me is a slippery force, hard to pin down. I was raised in a home where faith was something you came to privately and without fanfare, sort of like masturbation. It was a matter between you and your own fundament, vital but inarticulable and also somewhat embarrassing. We were Jews who celebrated nothing. There was Passover, but only because my uncle invited us. There were no candles, no loaves or holiday gifts. My mother's parents were Communists who saw organized religion as a tool of oppression, and my father was abandoned and raised on the streets. Not going to temple was a longstanding tradition on both sides. And yet there was no talk of atheism either. Shortly before her death, my grandmother told my mother that she believed in God. My mother admitted the same thing to me, briefly and privately, toward the end of her life. And though we never went to Sunday school, my brother and I did spend plenty of Sundays with our parents at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which I remember as a kind of religious horror show — Egyptian tombs carved in secret pictures, triptychs of beheaded saints, Jesus with a spike through his crossed feet. There was power here, and mystery, but no one said what it meant. 

Still, the message was clear: faith is possible. But for God's sake keep it to yourself.  

Belief of all stripes still makes me roll my eyes or nod my head, depending on the circumstances. From my neighbors' garden-variety Methodism to the faeries that all the hash-smoking radicals I met in Galway claimed to believe in. From tarot and astrology to the notion that the spirits of the dead walk among us, rattling knobs and messing with our household appliances. Astral projection and past life regression are meaningful and hilarious by turns. So's homeopathy, by the way, and colonic irrigation, and most other alternative health practices. Healing, it seems to me, requires a whole bucket-load of faith in the mysteries of the body and the movement of subtle energies, in things we can't see and things we can't prove. When it comes to this brand of salvation, faith and skepticism emerge for me in one breath.    

* * *

My love-hate affair with alternative healing goes back thirty-three years to a course in relaxation and body awareness that I took at my Massachusetts high school. The first of its kind in a public school, this substitute for gym was a real godsend for a miserably un-athletic kid like me. Instead of suiting up in shorts and tube socks to run painful laps, or pretending I was on my period so I wouldn't have to swim, I got to meditate and practice massage on my friends. Apart from being grateful, I was entirely open-minded. When our teacher demonstrated applied kinesiology, I was instantly sold.

Applied kinesiology is used by chiropractors and naturopaths to diagnose allergies, organ and structural dysfunction, and nutritional deficiencies. To see it in action, stand with your feet apart, your weaker hand against your solar plexus and your dominant arm out at shoulder level. Have someone attempt to push your arm down while you resist, just to establish your baseline strength. Then, hold a potential allergen or something else that isn't particularly good for you — our class used sugar packets — against your solar plexus and have the person try to push your arm down again. In many cases, especially when sugar is used, the arm will go down instantly despite the subject's best efforts. I have seen holistic practitioners demonstrate this technique with casein and gluten and food coloring and all sorts of other allergens. I have felt in my own body how the muscle grows weak, how you try to resist but can't.

Years later I would lie on a table while a chiropractor diagnosed me with lactose intolerance by setting a pint of milk just below my sternum and pushing my arm right down. He was something of a showman, a dashing, white-haired fellow with a bow tie, and when I asked him why the technique worked, he smiled slyly and said, "Because I put you in allergy mode." He didn't elaborate, and I understood that I was not meant to understand. This offended me so much that I suspected him instantly of quackery and never went back. The whole diagnostic process suddenly seemed like a parlor trick.

Perhaps it was. Applied kinesiology is a scientifically unproven method, and not for lack of effort on the part of the research community. Study after double-blind study has shown that the correlation between muscle weakness and food intolerance is about as frequent as it would be due to random chance. Ray Hyman, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Oregon and a founding member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, recalls observing a demonstration of applied kinesiology by a team of chiropractors in California. Test subjects showed consistent muscle weakness when a drop of refined sugar solution was placed on the tongue, whereas a drop of fruit sugar resulted in no such weakness. But when the test was repeated double blind, with both subjects and chiropractors unaware of whether the drop was glucose or fructose, there was no correlation between muscle weakness and refined sugar. Hyman's explanation for why AK seems to work isn't surprising: "Knowing an allegedly harmful substance has been applied, the practitioner unconsciously presses a little harder and the patient unconsciously resists a bit less."  

You'd think knowing that AK is essentially pseudoscience would end my romance with it, but you'd be wrong. The technique is used diagnostically as part of an allergy treatment program — N.A.E.T., or Nambudripad's Allergy Elimination Technique, developed by California acupuncturist Devi Nambudripad and practiced by thousands of alternative healers here and abroad. The process is especially popular with parents of young children because it doesn't involve needles; instead, pressure points are stimulated with an "activator" that looks like a little gun. I know a lot of folks who've undergone this treatment, including a close friend, who claims that it worked wonders, and a few children in my daughters' grades, who report mixed results. Several years ago I brought my eight-year-old to a local N.A.E.T. practitioner to treat her indoor allergies. For whatever reason, it helped a lot at first — she quit snuffling and sawing her arm across her nose — but after a while the treatments wore off. I wouldn't take her back for a second round, but I might consider going myself to treat the cold allergy that gives me hives on my legs whenever I walk the dog. Conventional medicine hasn't helped— there are no shots for cold urticaria; pretty much all you can do is take an antihistamine and buy really good long underwear. The alternative therapy would be costly. It would involve a diagnostic process I know for damned sure is bogus by empirical standards. But seriously, those hives suck. And it helped my friend. What the hell. It could be worth a shot. 

* * *

One type of belief opens the door to others. I may lean skeptical when it comes to applied kinesiology, but I do believe firmly in the principles of acupuncture — that there are energy channels in the body that become blocked, that these blockages cause disease and discomfort. We cannot see this energy, this “chi,” that moves along the body’s byways, cannot measure its force or progress. Nevertheless I believe; acupuncture resolved my nightmare of a frozen shoulder many years ago, so I am inclined to embrace this thing empirical tools can’t measure. But if chi, then why not prana, its Indian equivalent, a vital life force that runs through channels in the body called nadis? And if prana, then why not chakras, those rotating energy vortices eastern spiritualists embrace and color code, one at the crown of the head, another at the third eye, a root chakra at the base of the spine, many large and small ones in between? Cassandra the psychic claimed the energy in our bodies is part of a larger network connecting all things to all things — the energy of the Universe — and that this power can be harnessed for many purposes. If one accepts that immeasurable force moves through the body, it does seem possible that such energy exists beyond the body as well, even that some of us can sense it, interpret it, alter it.

How easily, then, we move from alternative healing into the realm of the occult. Perhaps this explains why my high school body awareness class went there, from yoga and foot massage to genuine clairvoyance. In retrospect it was an abrupt shift. Most of us had taken the class to relieve stress or avoid gym. All of a sudden here we were in our teacher's house, two full classes of us crammed into her living room, awaiting a personalized reading from a real live psychic.   

It was May, 1982, a few weeks before high school graduation and my first experience with a psychic. This one was tremendous, sitting on the floor with her feet out in front of her and the broad swell of her belly resting in her lap. I do not recall her name. I do remember that she collected an object from each of us — I gave her my cheap watch with the twist-o-flex band — and held it in her hand while she made her pronouncements. Waiting was agony. I was dying to hear about future boyfriends and whether I would write a literary tour de force. Even so, I was wary. When one student tossed a penny in along with the other objects, the psychic told her that she couldn't use money to do a reading because it changes hands too many times, which makes channeling any one person impossible. "Right now I'm getting a tall black fellow in his fifties," she told us, holding the penny in her huge fist, and I thought, "Garbage. She's pulling that out of her butt. How would anyone know?"

A lot of us were skeptical, but heck, we were there just the same. The exercise wasn't required; we didn't have to show up. I imagine that the struggle going on in my mind was the same one many of us felt, the one we experience every time we sit down with an astrologer or watch those cards fall one by one. It's nonsense. We know it is. But then, we can't resist discovering what the stars or cards have to say about us. When someone offers us a way of understanding our lives so that everything doesn't seem so damned chaotic, it's hard to pretend we aren't listening.  

The psychic told one girl that she would have a summer romance with a guy in black swim trunks. She told my ex-boyfriend that he was intellectually gifted and would publish three books before he hit forty. I waited and waited. Finally she picked up my watch, weighed it in her hand, closed her fist around it. "Whose object is this?" she asked.

I raised my hand.

She looked at me. “You’re psychic,” she said. “Very gifted. I’m seeing a ring of stars around your third eye.”

I would like to say that my bullshit detector went off at that point, or even that I was pleased and suspicious in equal measures. Truth is I was flattered, plain and simple, although indeed I have no evidence of this alleged psychic ability. I've never had a vision or premonition, never gotten a free-floating sense of foreboding when a loved-one was in trouble. My maternal grandmother (this is true) would have the same nightmare every time a family member was about to die, in which her departed relatives were seated at her kitchen table eating a big meal. The morning after my cousin Diane committed suicide, my mother arrived at the nursing home planning to break the news to my grandmother, but she already knew. "I had my dream. Who died?" she asked before my mom could say a word. I am happy to report that this unpleasant gift was not passed down to me. When someone dies suddenly, it takes me completely by surprise.

My lack of proven ability notwithstanding, it was thrilling to be told I was special, like some girl in a storybook with shape shifting powers and a crucial destiny. The glow didn’t last long. "You have a couple of family members who aren't doing so hot," the psychic told me. "Your mother. What's the matter with her? I'm seeing someone isolated from the rest of the world."

I couldn't argue with that. For most of my life my mother had taken anti-psychotic medication for her anxiety. The Stellazine didn't really do the trick — she was functional but still crippled by obsessive fears that had her retreating to her bedroom every third or fourth day. Recently she had taken herself off the medication, but now her speech was slurred and she was avoiding phone conversations. 

"She's a very unhappy woman," I supplied.

"She not unhappy, honey, she's sick!" Those were the psychic's exact words, and I remember them over thirty years later because they turned out to be true. At the time my mother believed the speech issue was emotional. Actually, it was the first sign of ALS, a degenerative nervous motor condition, almost always terminal within five years.

But the woman didn't elaborate, and I assumed she meant my mother was troubled, which of course I already knew. I remember being wholly dissatisfied with my reading, mostly because so much of it was about my family instead of about me. What about my future? What about making things seem less random and chaotic instead of simply reminding me how miserably chaotic they already were? After hearing about Mom's illness, and also that my brother was doing a lot of drugs (I already knew this too), I didn't dare ask about my love life for fear of looking selfish. 

By the time my mother was diagnosed in my freshman year of college, that reading seemed eerily accurate. It sold me. For several years, real clairvoyance seemed entirely possible. More than possible. A lot of things seemed possible back then — like chelation therapy, an intravenous infusion of amino acids and vitamins used to leach heavy metals from the body. My mother put herself through several courses of this treatment hoping for a miracle cure. She also saw a homeopath who claimed that her symptoms mimicked lead poisoning and treated her with a small oral dose of lead on the theory that “like cures like.” She used Chinese herbs and evening primrose oil and mega-doses of vitamins, all under the supervision of a holistic practitioner. She saw an osteopath and an acupuncturist. She had her mercury fillings removed. Nothing seemed to do much good, but neither did the injections that her doctors were giving her as part of a clinical trial.

My mother was diagnosed in spring of 1983, three months after my college psychic healing workshop ended. That summer I wrote Cassandra asking for her help. It seemed to me I should be doing something for my mother — I was, after all, supposed to have some special connection to the world of alternative healing. Perhaps I should open up my crown chakra and draw energy down from above the way Cassandra had showed us. Or — our class had done this one too — wrap my mother up in a pink cloud and float her illness away. All of that seemed laughable in light of her prognosis. In the end I couldn’t manage to do anything for her, couldn’t even give her a good massage. Every time I touched her neck and shoulders she would laugh weakly, trembling and wincing. Eventually I just gave up.

Cassandra wrote back with the very sensible advice that I shouldn’t feel responsible for curing my mother’s incurable disease. She also said there were things that could be done to help my mother live up to her physical potential, and she promised to write her personally. The letter arrived a short time after, a handwritten psychological assessment that sounded as though it could have been written for a completely different woman. The gist of the letter was that my mother's perfectionism was making her frustrated with her physical limitations and she needed to let go of those high standards. "You've always felt the need to be the perfect person your mother was," Cassandra said. Actually, my grandmother was gruff and hard-nosed and verbally abusive, and my mother spent much of her life trying not to be like her. And mom wasn't much of a perfectionist either, though it's true that her physical limitations frustrated her. How could they not? The advice was practical and broadly applicable to anyone with a degenerative nervous-motor disease, but my mother had a therapist for that sort of thing. Mom and I read the letter together, and then we looked at each other and shrugged. It had been worth a try.

Anything was worth a try at that point. When you've been diagnosed with a terminal illness, or when your mother has, adopting an attitude of hopeless cynicism won't do you much good. It's the right time for magical thinking, so I guess I can cut myself some slack for having consulted a psychic to help my mom. In the end it didn't have much less empirical integrity than some of the alternative therapies she used. And who knows — maybe some of that stuff actually helped her. When ALS starts in the tongue, it usually finishes its victims off in two years or so, but my mother lasted five. Patients who can't swallow typically live for six months after their gastric tubes are implanted, but my mother lived for two more years, blending her food up with oils and vitamins and powders from Chinatown. Perhaps it was sheer force of will that kept her going for so long. Perhaps it was her osteopath, or all that evening primrose oil. Perhaps it was hope. The mysteries of the body are endless and I don't pretend to know everything about them. I guess that's the point: I don't know. And you don't know. And neither do our doctors — not everything. Somewhere in all this not knowing, truly strange things become possible.

* * *

But no one wants to be made the fool. If the period of my mother's illness was the right time for magical thinking, now is surely the right time for healthy cynicism. I don't have a lot of money to waste on sham treatments that my insurance won't cover. I have to save money to send my two daughters to college, so they can become critical thinkers who won't be fooled by advertisers or mainstream media outlets. Or "spiritualists" at the psychic fair, like the one I consulted in Tucson back in 1992. My friend and I went to the fair on a whim, for kicks, because all those TV ads were giving us an itch we couldn't resist scratching. We paid five dollars at the door and another twenty for a reading with the New Age guru of our choice. My guy was a card and palm reader named Dennis with a crooked newspaper cap that made him look like something of a badass. I stood in line for forty minutes to see him. When my turn came, Dennis told me he was due for a cigarette break and he could either do my reading now or I could wait twenty minutes and get him fresh from his fix. I didn't feel like waiting, so maybe it's my own fault that Dennis' reading was such a disaster.

He looked at the back of my hand, squinting briefly at my fingers. "I'm guessing you're kind of conservative," he said  — this despite the fact that I was dressed left of liberal in a threadbare Tucson Poetry Festival t-shirt and cutoff shorts, Guatemalan bands on my wrists and ankles. When I expressed confusion, Dennis seemed to think I didn't understand. "Conservative just means you're more likely to favor the death penalty," he explained patiently. And when I told him that I most certainly did not, his patience wore thin. "I'm getting it from that finger," he insisted, pointing to my middle one as though it were incontrovertible proof.

He also told me I'd have four children, three girls and a boy, and that I'd live into my mid-seventies. I don't remember much else about the reading, but it didn't last long. Any nicotine addict will understand why.

I love to tell the story of Dennis-the-irritable-palm-reader-who-told-me-I-was- conservative. I tell it to the students at the college where I teach. I tell it to my friends and colleagues. It feels good to demonstrate my cynicism by tapping into our shared secular worldview. Psychics — we all understand this — are hucksters who take advantage of the desperate and confused by selling something that simulates order. Some of them aren't even that insightful, missing physical cues and offering up clumsy advice. Mocking them is fun, just as it's fun to mock those poor souls who thought John Edward could talk to their dead relatives. In this environment and at this time in my life, doubt is easy.      

What's not so easy is admitting how often, even today, I doubt my doubt. Dennis may have been a big fake, but he's hardly the last word on the fundamental nature of being. There are times when doubt seems oppressive, closing the world down like a fist, curbing possibility. Then again, perhaps doubt is the wrong word to use here. What we call doubt or skepticism is often plain old disbelief, dull as pavement because it's all about certainty. When I really doubt, I immerse myself in uncertainty, doubting absolutely everything, including my own methods of assessment. In this mood, I think way less about what I do know than what I don't.

Thus doubt changes to belief in a heartbeat. I get a flash of insight, a moment of faith in the possibility of strange and marvelous things. My grandmother dreamed the dead were eating and a day or two later, someone always died. A woman I'd never met held my wristwatch in her hand and told me that my mother was profoundly ill. In such a world, what else is possible?  There are channels in our bodies through which invisible forces travel at immeasurable frequencies. There are messages everywhere in languages we can't speak, clues we don't know how to look for, questions we haven't thought to ask. It's all just beyond my reach, in some vast, obscure plane of intuition. Forget knowing, then, and screw the limits of logic. Take my aches and fevers and itching skin, all the messy aberrations of my body. Float them away on a cloud of light. For God’s sake heal me.