“The most important thing is that the afterlife is around us all of the time,” says Colleen Vanderzyden, a medium and year-round resident of the Lily Dale Spiritualist Assembly. Established in 1879 and located in Lily Dale, a small hamlet of 300 people in southwest New York, the Assembly is the epicenter for the study, practice, and advancement of the religion, science, and philosophy of Spiritualism in America. Spiritualists believe in a higher power and life after death, and they believe a person shouldn’t have to go through a priest or minister or religious leader to speak with that higher power—it’s something they can do themselves. “We have this feeling or this belief, probably from older religions, that the afterlife is some far-away place,” Vanderzyden says. “Like heaven is above us...when it’s literally right next to us.”
Vanderzyden, 52, has a youthful face, with a broad smile and angel-blonde bangs hanging over her eyes like a little canopy. Her demeanor is comforting, a necessary quality for a professional medium, especially when the main objective of her practice and profession is to pass along messages from deceased persons to fellow congregation members during a Spiritualist Sunday church service, or during one-on-one sessions with clients.
Spiritualists mark the birth of their religion as March 31, 1848, when, in the nearby town of Hydesville, New York, two young sisters by the names of Margaret and Kate Fox declared they were able to communicate with a dead salesman they named “Mr. Splitfoot,” who was supposedly buried in the cellar of their home. The Fox sisters, who claimed that they were able to converse with the dead via tapping noises that only they were able to decode, began to travel from state to state, launching a movement of spirit communication that spread like wildfire across the nation.
By 1879, the population of Spiritualists in the United States and parts of Europe was over five million. But in 1888, 55-year-old Margaret, living in abject poverty and suffering from substance-abuse issues, confessed to the New York World that the tapping noises were fake. (The newspaper paid Margaret, who later recanted the confession, $1,500 for the exclusive.) Regardless, it hardly made a difference on the momentum of the movement she and Kate had started—the Spiritualist community had already disowned her as a failed medium, and Margaret passed away in 1893, the same year the National Spiritualist Association (or NSA) was established.
Though all of the 52 registered mediums at Lily Dale consider themselves Spiritualists—some are seasonal residents, others live on the grounds year-round—it’s important to understand that not all Spiritualists are mediums and not all mediums are Spiritualists. The Lily Dale mediums are open-minded when it comes to visitors: skeptics are welcome. And nearly all of the mediums I’ve spoken with say that everyone is born with the capability to communicate with the spirit world, that it’s as innate as laughter and as reflexive as a doe licking her fawn; it’s simply that most people haven’t figured out how to flex that muscle, don’t believe that they can, or don’t want to. Photographer Ahndraya Parlato visited the mediums of Lily Dale for several months last year, capturing their practices and their visions, and I recently spoke with them about what they saw when they opened the door to the other side.
I generally just see a white screen, sometimes other pale colors, and then the image of the person coming through. They’re always interested in what’s going on with future generations: who’s named for them, who has their dimples, who has their musical ability, who thinks the way they did, who’s the artist, the musician? They are always curious. Oh, she got my crooked toes? They always want to know.
When the spirit communicates with me, I see the person in my third eye, like you have with a 3D program, or virtual reality, where you can move it around and look at the angles, zoom in, zoom out, really take your time. Most colleagues I know, they do all kinds of little rituals and sacred prayers. I don’t do any of that. The only thing I do is meditate and really find the light within myself. It’s my belief that darkness cannot overtake light. The only way darkness can get to light is if you hold up a shield or you build a wall. If you just tell your mind you don’t have to do anything, and just sit quietly, your mind will automatically present to you what is most pungent at that time.
I don’t see spirits. Most people think that if you didn’t see spirits standing in front of you, or walking through the house when you were a little person, you’re not a medium. That’s not so. The land between the living and the dead is a frontier. It’s an adventure every time I open that door. I’m learning constantly from the spirit people, what their lives are like. I’m also not interested in what the spirit world looks like. My whole focus and interest is to represent as accurately and clearly and empathically as I can what the spirit people want the person sitting across from me to know. The sitter is wondering, “Is my loved one okay? Is my son okay? Is my daughter okay? Did they make it over there?” What I know is that the spirit world knows what they need. I try as best I can to keep my fingerprints off of it. Just bring it through.
For me, I literally will feel the spirit. Some people see them very clearly, like someone is standing right in front of them, or they hear it. I will get words and stuff every now and then, but mine’s more of a feeling. Sometimes people actually tell me I look like the spirit. I may move into some kind of a trance, I don’t really know. I’m just kind of going with it. If I’m meditating or I’m getting ready to sleep at night, I see it. My eyes are shut, it’s dark. But I can see light within the dark. It's hard to describe. It's sort of like I can go through the dark and see past it.
When you meditate and you're good at it, you go to the same place that you go to when you're asleep, as far as brain waves are concerned. One can become psychic, or aware of angels, depending on how serious you are at your practice. So what happens is that you educate yourself in different forms of meditation and you become what is known as intuitively literate. With the young, it's easier for them to produce what is known as alpha and beta waves in their imagination. But the more that we grow up, we get involved with life, we have to be serious, we have to be responsible, so that's where you actually learn how to awaken the child. The child’s imagination inside of you, and being intuitive is part of your genius. That's why Albert Einstein said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant.”
A person may come through and show me they’re in jeans and work boots. They may have a tool belt on, and so it helps me understand that person is showing me themselves as someone who was a hands-on worker. Someone else may come through in a suit, vest, a tie and was a businessman. Once I opened my eyes after saying the prayer, and I saw two grinning, happy older people waving at me—a man and a woman, kind of chubby and bubbly with matching clothes. The man had a shirt with a bolo tie, and the woman was wearing a full crinoline skirt. I asked the client if she could identify a couple who loved square dancing. She excitedly said yes. It was her grandparents, who traveled to square-dancing contests. Whether the spirits ever really wore exactly what my impression sees is not the point: they’re trying to get across to me in the way that I can interpret through the mediumship. It really is a three-way communication, not an exact science.
I had a very difficult time at 11 years old. I was very, very sick. I had a temperature and an infection. My lungs were filled with fluid. I lost 26 pounds in a week. Then I died. The experience was like going through a tunnel of light. I felt like I was moving at an incredible rate of speed. And then, all of a sudden, I came out of the end of the tunnel, which just shrinks up and disappears. I saw my grandmother, who had died when I was nine, standing across the river. The color of that experience, the color of the trees and the color of the river and the color of everything, was just absolutely beyond what we have on the earth plane. I heard her say "Gregory," and I had this inner knowing that I could walk across the river. I walked up to the other shore, looked at my grandmother, gave her a hug, and she introduced me to Jesus, and Jesus explained to me that I was only there for a little bit and that I was going back to be with my family, but not to worry, this is what I was here to learn.
Sherry Lee Calkins
The aura isn’t just something that you see. You feel it as pressure or heat or warmth. You see it. You smell it. You hear it. I’m what’s called a “channel.” One day, this lady came to me during one of our Lily Dale services, and she said, “I’m seeing your fingers as colored pencils.” When the spirits said they wanted me to draw the aura, I didn’t understand them because I cannot draw. But when I decided I’d try it, I sat down in front of this one lady, with a pad of drawing paper and a collection of pastels. I said, "Do you mind if I do a drawing of your aura while I’m reading for you?" The lady’s name was Julia. She was from Tennessee, I guess. She had a lovely little accent. But she said, "Why, no. Go right ahead," and I did my first aura chart. I didn’t have to think about it, I just picked up the chalk I was impelled to touch and started drawing. I didn’t think about what I was doing, like in the talking. I just let it happen.
I once saw a picture of a gentleman out in a country road—not even a dirt road, more like a track that maybe was made by farm equipment or something on the outside of a fence. He was wearing casual clothes and walking down this trail with a dog. And so I'll describe the gentleman, and I'll describe the dog and the situation, and people will recognize or not recognize what I'm showing them. Oftentimes it's part of the picture that they create to let their loved ones know that they're doing what they want to do in spirit, that they're at peace. It's an internal sensation, really. I would compare it to gazing into the flames when you're sitting around a campfire. You know how you gaze into a fire and your imagination just kind of goes, and you see pictures? It’s like that.