I'd been meaning to catch him all day. We'd taken a break for lunch and I'd spent a while trying to negotiate my way around the dining hall towards him, watching the other students hover around him like wasps on a jam sandwich. He was a older man who had presence, and was well known within the Spiritualist circles. He had demonstrated his mediumship abilities and taught healing to students for years. At that time, I'd only been practising mediumship a couple of years, sitting in my local Spiritualist Church every Tuesday night, trying to see colours and 'feel' other people's energies. I was twenty years old.
Closing the door behind me, I stepped into the green of the small courtyard gardens, taking some fresh air and a deserved break from the heady workshop. Among the flowers and carefully slabbed paving stones, he was sat on one of the stone benches. For the first time that day, I saw that he had nobody around him.
"Sorry to interrupt, but do you have a second?" I asked, a little nervously, edging towards him.
"Of course." He said, smiling warmly at me. "Are you enjoying the course?" He shifted up on the stone bench to let me sit down.
"Yes, it's great. I had a question I wanted to ask you, though." I paused, thinking about how to put the question without sounding too crazy. "Well, in the last year I've been starting to see energies much more clearly, and I feel that it's all coming quite naturally to me, if you know what I mean. Sometimes, I feel them about me quite strongly, it's almost like I'm buzzing. I find it hard to just switch off from being that way, y'know? I'm often lying in bed, trying to sleep, and all I can see when I close my eyes are colours and faces that pop in and out of my mind, a bit like a flicker book. Don't get me wrong, it's intriguing, it's just not great when I want to fall asleep."
I quickly scanned his face, looking for signs of disinterest or amusement. But he was listening, so I went ahead and asked the question, leaning in a little as if I was telling a secret.
"I just wondered... Well, my question was, how do you turn it off?"
He took a deep breath, and exhaled, in a manner that suggested I was asking possibly one of the most complex questions to answer in the whole wide world. Then he said something that surprised me, and made me feel uneasy.
"You are very open to energy, especially for someone so young. And because you're young, you still need to learn control. You see, at your age, you need to be focusing on other more..."
He paused and crossed his arms pointedly, seemingly trying to fish the right word from a very large pool of wrong ones. His face contorted into slightly grotesque shapes as he moved his lips expressively, lengthening each syllable.
"more...important things, like getting married and having children. My suggestion is, we shut you down completely, and then in twenty years or so, after you've done everything you should be doing when you're young, you can open up again and practise your mediumship. You know, it's an ability that never goes away, you'll just be far more controlled when you're older."
He sniffed. He seemed satisfied with his response.
I stared at him, my mouth open and my cheeks flushing pink. I thanked him politely for his advice and turned and walked swiftly from the garden. His words etched deeply into my thoughts as I began to trace them over and over.
Married and children... Shut me down?... Completely?... What was I, some sort of computer?
Whilst that young, free and indignant side of me shunned his dusty opinion, in that brief conversation, I felt my confidence shatter slightly, which only nudged my sense of right and wrong into clearer view.
A while back, a friend of mine opened her new shop in Richmond called Inside Out Retreats. Inside Out Retreats is an urban retreat centre promoting good health and harmony of spirit and I decided to take a trip there just before Christmas. Which is how I found myself sat in a warm, beautiful space, with a cup of peppermint tea and the opportunity to talk with like-minded people on a Saturday afternoon. All kinds of people were chatting and as I walked through the rooms and drifted in and out of conversations about super foods, creative expression and empowerment techniques, I felt a long way from the hustle of Richmond's bustling Christmas shoppers. I took a sip of my tea and swirled the teabag around in my mug, enjoying the lovely atmosphere, when I noticed a lady sit down opposite me. I smiled at her and nodded.
"Hello!" She said brightly. We chatted for a moment, before she leant forward and asked me a question. The one question that always gets me slightly hot under the collar on how to answer it.
"And what do you do?"
I hesitated, reluctant as always to label myself with my job. But given we were in a place promoting harmony of spirit I was doubtful that she had much interest in me being a receptionist. I decided at once that the question leant more to 'what are you into?' (of the spiritual variety), but it hardly calmed me any more than the last question had. Over the years I'd come to realise that there was a definite art to working out who I could admit my interest in mediumship to, as in the past I had discovered that not everyone agrees with mediumship and some just plain don't accept it.
'Tarot cards, psychics and mediums are all of the occult.' My Religious Studies teacher from secondary school had warned me, after I'd sought out her opinion as someone who I knew was a good, Church-going Christian.
'So, if I was interested in finding out more, I'd be going against the Bible?' I'd asked cautiously, rather hoping not to be.
'I'm afraid so.' She had replied. I remember worrying about that for a very long time.
Elizabeth thinks she can talk to ghosts - the report had stated, in hard, printed letters. It continued: I therefore put into question how stable she is mentally. Also I wonder what kind of influence she might be on my other children.
I swallowed, hardly daring to believe what my own father had written about me to Social Services. I wondered if it was what he truly believed about me, or whether it was a new low in the seemingly endless acrimonious divorce battle against my mother.
"Is he joking, Mum?" I asked my mother who leant silently against the kitchen table. She looked tired and fraught, as anyone who had had their parenting ability unfairly questioned might look. He wasn't joking, and neither was I- after spending an hour and a half on the telephone, justifying both my beliefs and how I was in fact very normal to a rather sceptical social worker.
It seemed that whilst I was proud of the abilities I'd developed over the years through the many books on the subject I'd read, the workshops and courses I'd attended and the evenings spent in group meditation, I'd also developed a bit of a fear about admitting it to anyone. A fear that niggled inside me, whispering cruelly that I was too young and inexperienced to be a medium. It liked to remind me that people might be horrified if I told them, or worse, they might use the fact that I believe, against me.
Remembering suddenly that I had been asked a question, I pushed my fear deep down, straightened my back and hoped that my eyes hadn't been staring at the fairy lights decorating the bookcase too long. I looked at the lady sitting opposite me on the sofa, only deciding at the very last second what I was going to say. She had a kind face.
"I do mediumship. I know I look quite young, but I've done it for almost seven years now." I laughed, nervously.
"You don't need to apologise! That's great." She said, smiling at me.
The bell on the front door rang as I left the warm, open space of Inside Out Retreats. The lady I'd spoken to hadn't seemed remotely shocked that I was a twenty-six year old medium. In fact, quite the opposite; she had asked me for my business card.
I walked slowly, but with purpose towards the station. Around me, Saturday shoppers darted in and out of the crowd, distracted by bright lights and the ever looming closing time. Little did they know that the girl they were dodging in the grey duffel coat and converse trainers, was having an epiphany.
Age means nothing at all... Nobody can tell anything about you based upon just your age. It's a number, not an explanation. Your thoughts and personal experience shape you into being exactly who you were meant to be.
I thought about the eight-year-olds I have met who have the sense and maturity of eighty years spent on this planet, and similarly recalled a few eighty year olds who I'd seen stomp their foot and throw a tantrum as if they were eight years old. I concluded, quite pleased with myself, that only I can decide what I can possibly be and it is my responsibility to prove it to the rest of the world.