Originally printed in the November - December 2001 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: O'Grady, John P. "The Weather Coming Off All Things." Quest 89.6 (NOVEMBER - DECEMBER 2001): 207-211.
By John P. O'Grady
PERHAPS THE PAST IS INTERRED IN THE PRESENT, as some have maintained, and the world is its own enduring monument. Material objects thus possess an inner or spiritual life, just as human beings do, and these things have their own memories, fully capable of being transmitted or passed along to one open to such impressions. Nobody would deny something like this is the case with words, those veritable graveyards of meaning, wherein every tomblies a Lazarus waiting to be called forth. Why shouldn't the same be true of material objects? At least they observe a kind of etiquette, most of the time, and don't force themselves upon us like some drunk with a story down at the Jolly-O Tavern. Indeed, the things that compose our world are not so rude as to speak directly, nor so coy as to conceal vital knowledge, but instead they give signs. Just like the weather.
On the other hand, there are some people upon whom even the most trifling of objects will advance like an emotional thunderstorm. For instance, my old friend Amy Ursi, the New Jersey psychic. Just as some people can feel in their bones the approach of an oncoming storm, so she responds in her gut to the atmospheric conditions she says surround material objects. Each one is enveloped by a mysterious vapor of presence, the kind of thing said to come up around graves or in dreams when the beloved dead come back to visit. By her account, this strange mist is borne aloft from the multitude of things, as if by winds, to form clouds that circulate in broad patterns across the landscape of the human heart. Lest you take this as a mere figure of speech, I hasten to add that Amy has a stormy temperament. I tend to take her at her word.
Now when it comes to weather in the ordinary sense, meteorologists look at a wide range of phenomena, everything from the jet stream right down to the dust devil swirling across your supermarket parking lot. They use highly sensitive instruments to compile data on minute changes in temperature, air pressure, and humidity. All of this is fed into computers, digested by highly sophisticated programs, then squeezed out in new and presumably more useful forms. These tokens are then "read" by the meteorologists to provide a forecast for your morning commute. Such predictions, shrouded in the same glamorous computer graphics favored by sportscasters, more often than not prove unreliable, yet they somehow suffice to win our confidence. You could say that when it comes to our mental possessions, the wrong ideas are preferable to none.
My old friend Amy is a kind of meteorologist of the soul. Because she is self-taught in these matters, her style of talking about them is more colorful than what passes on the nightly news. She has no degree in atmospheric science nor does she employ any fancy computer modeling; her instruments of choice are astrology and numerology. For her, the air is filled with all manner of unseen angel, demon, and disembodied soul, which—at least by her reckoning—should come as no surprise, since the air itself is invisible yet nobody doubts it is there. When skeptics challenge her, she just cites the Chandogya Upanishad: "Like the wind, like the clouds, like thunder and lightning, all of which arise from space without physical shape and reach the light in their own form, so too those who rise above ordinary perception ascend to the light in their own form." Obscure as Amy can sometimes sound, when it comes to the things themselves she speaks clearly enough: "Be careful what you handle—there's a forecast in every touch."
Amy has the ability to "tune in" to objects, a curious knack she acquired when we were still in high school. During our senior year, she worked as a retail clerk up at the old EJ Korvettes in West Orange. Not long on the job, she realized she could tell, just by its feel, whether a customer's check was going to bounce. "It sets off this strange buzzing in my ear," I remember her saying. Turned out she was right every time, which much pleased her supervisors. They quickly promoted her to "Store Check Approval Officer," a position created just for her.The modest pay raise and enhanced prestige, such as could be had in those days at EJ Korvettes, were enough to convince Amy that she—the only person from our very large graduating class to get into Princeton—really didn't need to go to college. Instead, she embarked on an "alternative" career in psychic detection, which, when compared to the professions of our classmates—bankers, real estate developers, Hollywood actors, corporate headhunters, and politicians—seems far less wrongheaded than it once did.
Nowadays, of course, computer networks have pretty much killed the need for any extrasensory form of check clearing, but lucky for Amy her clairvoyant abilities extend well beyond the cash register. Give her a photograph of somebody she doesn't know, and you'll see what I mean. She puts it up to her forehead and after a few moments of "incubating the images in the henhouse of her mind"—at least that's how one debunkers' magazine described her methods—she provides a detailed account of events from the life of the person in the photo, such as when a broken arm, when a first kiss, when a parent's death, and even, on a good day, when that individual's own death. Amy has a similar flair when it comes to letters and, of late, e-mail, though she prefers to scan these messages in hardcopy rather than press her brow against the monitor. She's also pretty good at "smelling ghosts," able to tell—just by walking in the door and taking a whiff—if your house is haunted.
Amy is fond of saying that a person's breath is just a highly localized form of weather, worthy of at least a little mention on the nightly news if not its own cable channel. In her way of speaking, weather is an allegory for the soul. Sometimes I think she's right—a son one summer afternoon when I stepped out of a Center City Philadelphia movie theater into a furious rainstorm. The whole atmosphere had agreenish pall to it, and the water in the street was running deeper than the city's political grudges. I looked up at the sky just in time to see a dark funnel cloud casually making its way eastward, directly above the buildings along Chestnut Street, as if it were just another tourist from Kansas or Oklahoma come to see the Liberty Bell.
At the same instant I observed two young men not far down the street, engaged in a bitter dispute. They were yelling at each other. One of them abruptly pulled out a knife and plunged it into the thigh of the other, then ran off down a dismal side street, out of sight. The bewildered victim was left hurling curses up into the air as he tried to tend his wound. But then somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind, the idea took hold that he should give chase to his assailant so he gave up trying to staunch the flow of his blood onto the sidewalk, and instead limped off, to the best of his diminished ability, still hurling curses up into the air, yet making slow progress toward retribution, until he too disappeared down that same dismal side street.
Later that evening, the television news reported a tornado had touched down on the other side of the Delaware River, causing a bit of damage over in Camden but no injuries. What happens in New Jersey is big news. Yet over here in the City of Brotherly Love it was just another ordinary day—no mention of any stabbing, no report of a washed-out trail of blood and where it might have led. Instead, the fluffy-haired news anchor told us to stay tuned for tomorrow's forecast.
You've probably heard the stories about police departments that use psychics to help crack the really tough cases. Amy is one of the people they call. Contrary to public opinion, the cops don't have a problem with using paranormal methods to solve crimes. On the whole, they are without superstition but not without belief. Since they are pragmatists, they welcome aid from wherever it comes. And Amy always comes through.
Several years ago, an article appeared in one of those check-stand tabloids on the subject of "Psychic Investigators." Amy was just starting out and got some good press here. The article quoted an unnamed Bayonne police detective who had high praise for her abilities: "She hit it right on the head—I mean, I was there when she did it. I don't believe in any of this psychic crap, for the most part, but I think she does have a gift. I've been on this job for a long time and seen a lot of people claiming special powers, but I think Amy comes closest. I found her the most accurate of all of them when it comes to this business."
The case involved the murder of a telemarketing tycoon—or at least the evidence pointed that way—but no corpse had turned up, and the investigation was going nowhere. Having come to their wits' end, the cops brought in Amy. Since she does command a hefty fee, I've oftenwondered how they report such a charge on their expense forms. I suppose the word "consultation" is versatile enough. In contemporary usage it covers all manner of services rendered, everything from oracles to lawyers, prostitutes to anesthesiologists.
Anyway, the cops handed over to their psychic the one piece of crime-scene evidence they had a small bit of bone believed to have come from the victim. They asked Amy to describe the person and where the rest of the body might be found. The article then recounted how she picked up the bone, pressed it to her forehead, and suddenly screamed out: "A rat! It's a rat! All I can see is this enormous rat in front of my eyes and it's coming right at me! What's going on, did you guys give me the wrong bone?"
Oh no, the cops assured her, that was the right bone all right,definitely human. "Listen, Amy," they said, "the rat you're seeing was probably what chewed the bone off the hand of the victim in the first place, before the killer was able to transport the body. That's what you're picking up. Take another look. Could you just go past that rat and tell us if you see the victim?" So that's what Amy did. Not only was she able to describe the victim, but she also told the cops exactly where the body lay, out there in the Jersey Meadowlands. They took it from there.
If all such cases went as smoothly as this, every police department would keep a psychic on staff full-time. Unfortunately, big problems arise when a "medium" is brought in, whether by the cops or by somebody who's just in an emotional crisis. Not that a true psychic will fail to"pick up on the vibes" in any case, but they often pick up on the wrong vibes. When it comes to perception, if you make your mind as hospitable to vagrant images as these psychics do, then you're exposing yourself to some pretty chancy stuff. They say it's like walking out of a dark cave into the bright light of an afternoon, or worse, staring directly into the sun to watch an eclipse: your eyes fill up with darkness and you're left groping around blindly. This is just a metaphor, but when something like this happens to a psychic, it's a major embarrassment for all concerned.
Like any sensitive seer, Amy occasionally locks on to information that, well, isn't exactly related to the case. Such as the time she was working with an elephant figurine. She blithely supplied her police audience with a wealth of lurid details about a ménage à trois that she was picking up on, a little drama somebody later described as a"pornographic Nancy Drew Meets the Hardy Boys." As the titillating scene was being fleshed out by Amy, the detective who had handed her the evidence in the first place began to fidget. You could see the thunderheads of anxiety building up over his head, until all attentionin the room was on him.
Then suddenly—Boom!—he jumps up and puts a halt to the proceedings. "This is going nowhere," he blurts out as he snatches the figurine back from Amy and bolts from the room, leaving his fellow detectives—with one or two nervous exceptions—snickering indelight.
For her part, Amy has cultivated a degree of circumspection unrivalled in her field. As she once told a reporter, "I try not to tune in to the X-rated stuff. The police worry that I'm going to see things about their sex life or about who they went out with last night or who they're cheating on. So I make it clear right from the start, 'No X-rated stuff—I don't do that.' Or at least I try real hard not to. But sometimes stuff sneaks out. It's not my fault."
And so, through sad experience, cops come to learn caution when they follow a psychic into the backcountry of common sense, where deadly pitfalls and precipices abound for the unwary. Nowhere is the Boy Scout motto more appropriate: "Be prepared."
Yet, when it comes to getting more than is bargained for in psychic inquiries, it's not just the cops who are at risk, but the psychic as well. Call it a professional liability, but Amy is living proof of the ancient wisdom that when we cultivate our virtues we simultaneously cultivate our flaws.
About ten years ago, she was consulted on a break-in that occurred over in Manhattan. Dozens of Aztec relics had been stolen from an antiquities dealer. The thieves left no fingerprints, not a singletrace. That's when the dealer brought in Amy. He told her that, in making their getaway, the crooks inadvertently had dropped a bit of their loot. He hoped she might tune in to this item and help solve the case. Amy said sure.
The dealer handed her a six-inch sacrificial knife. It was made ofthe blackest obsidian and was very sharp. The dealer said, "Have at it."
So Amy lays hold on the handle and is immediately pierced by the image of a hill rising from the margin of a dark and tree-lined lake.Thousands of nondescript people are flocking to its summit, where an imposing temple looms over everything below. Directly in front of it is an altar, a huge greenish block of agate or jasper, its top side slightly convex, like the surface of a stony awesome eye. Behind it blaze a pair of ritual bonfires. The air is permeated with a vague stench, which brings to mind for Amy images of the house she grew up in behind the old Jack-in-the-Box restaurant on South Livingston Avenue. Here's her swing set, there's her dollhouse, and now out of the blue appears her long lost collie dog, Laddie. She is aghast to see her own memories mingling with those coming off the grim artifact, as if the whole thing were just some informal cocktail party in the imagination.
Next she observes a half dozen priests emerging from the temple, each one wearing a long cotton robe adorned with hieroglyphic emblems of mystic import. Five of these priests are shrouded in black, while the sixth is mantled in scarlet and holds in his hands the very knife Amy holds in hers. As the procession draws closer, she can see that each priest's hair is matted with blood, the gory tresses flowing wildly over their shoulders. At the center of this gruesome pomp walks a naked and startlingly handsome young man. Given the circumstances, he's just a little too enthusiastic. He's waving to the crowd like a rock star.
When the grim procession arrives at the altar, the five black-robed priests stretch out the eager young man, face upward, upon the glossy surface of the stone. They secure his head and limbs. Now the scarlet-robed one lifts the black knife and holds its flinty tip just above the young man's chest. A deafening roar goes up from the crowd.This young man is definitely the star of the show. There's no going back. Even if he were in some way to falter, have a change of mind and cry out with all his might as the dark blade slits open his chest and a holy hand plunges into the gushing wound to tear out his palpitating heart, nobody could hear it anyway.
Well, maybe Amy would hear it—but she drops the knife at that critical moment and thereby draws the vision to a close.
Needless to say, she didn't solve this particular case, but the dealer was still pleased with her performance. It gave him a pretty good story to attach to an otherwise undistinguished relic, thus quadrupling its value in the marketplace. Combined with the insurance settlement on the lost goods, this meant he came out way ahead. He paid Amy double for her good work. When word got out about the knife, she started getting all kinds of calls from people wanting her to tell them if this sliver of wood they had came from the Cross, or this knucklebone came from Saint Peter and not, as those without faith would have it, from some barnyard pig. A professor who claimed to be an expert on the Shroud of Turin wrote a letter to the Newark Star Ledger demanding that the Vatican grant Amy access to the relic, so the question of its authenticity might be settled once and for all.
Yes, Amy's business really took off, but nothing costs a person so much as something that is given, especially if by the gods. Imagine not having the power to forget, not being able to filter out the innumerable impressions that come via the senses and whatever other routes there are to perception, and instead, like Amy, possessing a Midas touch of memory. Everything you encountered then would immediately burst into image, thousands upon thousands of them, and you'd be swept up in a tornado of one thing turning into something else, an unbelievably violent flux in which nothing is ever fixed, no boundary ever secure. You'd be unable to distinguish between your own experience and that of somebody else—say, your butcher or the bastard who just cut you off in traffic—no longer able to know friend from foe, rich from poor, celebrity from nobody, false from true, weak from strong, foolish from wise, and—taking this where it must lead--one species from another. On and on it goes, until at last a terrible sameness cloaks the entire universe, so that not even the living and the dead can enjoy ablessed separation.
Loss of memory, we could conclude, might just be the greatest achievement of human consciousness. If only those flinty old senators from western states like Idaho and Utah had some sense of the fragility of the hard-won human ignorance in these matters, you could bet they'd be the first to demand the Clean Water Act be extended to include a certain River of Forgetfulness mentioned at the end of an ancient book,where all the disembodied souls about to be reincarnated are forced to drink a measure, that they might enter upon their new lives unencumberedby any clutter from the old.
Such is the nature of Amy's problem. Some say this is all just conjurer's shtick, but I don't know if it's that simple. After all, nobody is required to consult a fortuneteller, to obtain through prophecy or table rapping a treasure more easily acquired through prudence and down-to-earth discretion. No, when it comes to explaining why so many people in this day and age resort to palm readers, psychotherapists, and cult leaders, let's just say that nothing provides more comfort to a desperate person than to meet somebody who is evenmore desperate. This is not to impugn divination as an art, but only to note the pitiable hands into which it has fallen.
In Amy's defense, I would point out that her views about the weather coming off all things are compatible with those held by several ancient philosophers, most notably Anaximenes, who was the first to claim that the soul is made from air. Only a single sentence from his writings survives, but it's a lofty one: "As our soul, being air, both holds us together and controls us, so do breath and air encompass the whole cosmos." After all, we do say that the eyes are the windows of the soul, so it follows that the nose and mouth are the doorways. Thus our psychological houses are more open to the elements than we think. No wonder human beings, even when they have nothing else in common, will find some way to talk about the weather.
I've heard Amy say that when we die our souls fly off to the moon.Once upon a time it was thought that all lost objects—not just souls but garments, childhood toys, luggage, and wedding rings, as well ascourage, virtue, beauty, and passion—found their way to the moon, where they reside to this day, hidden to all eyes save for those of the deity who reigns there. It may be that even one or two ideas have found their way there. All these lost things pass their time on the moon as if in sleep, which is yet another kind of weather, says Amy, and they dream oftheir former existences back on the disburdening earth, flitting and fluttering around happy with themselves and doing as they please untilsuch time as the dream becomes so vivid they wake up right where they belong, unable to tell if the whole she bang was not itself just one big dream.
As for me, I am relieved that I am for the most part oblivious to the things that cloud Amy's world. The weather around here affords me enough clear days that I can keep track of the moon moving swiftly through her phases, rather like the opening and closing of a vast and sympathetic eye, at times full with remembrance, and at others dark in a necessary fugue. Although nothing gives me greater pleasure than to hear my friend Amy's stories and recount them to others, I myself don't need to see the corpse candles and ghostly beacons that, she assures me, hover over every object, no matter how trivial.
Like I said, I tend to take her at her word.
John P. O'Grady is currently "breaking camp" in Pennsylvania and heading back to the mountains of California, where he will be working on a new collection of essays titled Occult Ecology: Reading Nature Darkly. This is his seventh contribution to the Quest magazine.
Grave Goods: Essays of Peculiar Nature is a collection by John P.O'Grady published by the University of Utah Press in 2001, including this essay (printed here by permission) and six others that first appeared in the Quest magazine. The sixteen pieces in this volume include ghost stories, macabre modern legends, and metaphysical investigations, all informed by the natural sciences, history,philosophy, literature, and mythology. They reveal the natural world as a place of unnatural surprises and strange beauty where Rip van Winkle, psychics, and ordinary people rub shoulders with the Buddha, Socrates, and Stephen King. O'Grady has been called "the cream of the next generation of American nature writers . . . with a wit that arcs between sweetly goofy and canine sharp." Cloth, $21.95, 170 pages. Available from the University of Utah Press at 800-773-6672.