On the first Sunday of October, Emile de Leon, the owner of Knight People Books & Gifts, explained to me from behind the counter of his shop that psychics are able to tap into a truth that is universal, but not necessarily fixed. He wore a brown vest over a tie-dye shirt, with matching brown pants. As it has done every first Sunday of the month for the past 20 or so years, Knight People was hosting its Psychic Fair, and in a room behind the register, shielded by a curtain, customers were receiving readings. Although de Leon and I did not know it at the time of our conversation, this particular Sunday at the beginning of October would be the last psychic fair the store would offer.
“There’s no guarantee,” de Leon said, explaining the purpose of psychics. “[The universe] is a fluctuating reality…. There’s no guarantee you’re going to hit 40 [years old], but you might hit 90 or 100. You walk out the door, it’s a spinning wheel. It’s a roulette. You don’t know, there’s no way to know. But psychics—if they’re genuinely psychic—they get the gravity of the situation…not a guarantee, but the gravity. They tap into the universal truth, which is not a set truth. It’s a fluctuating truth.”
In the weeks following my visit to the psychic fair, I have been thinking quite a bit about fluctuating truth. That is, I have been thinking about it in the way that de Leon discussed, which implies a moment-to-moment uncertainty in the universe, where chance always plays a significant role in future events. For instance, I could have come to the psychic fair any first Sunday of the month, but the fair I came to ended up being the last. There’s another kind of fluctuating truth, however, that has also been on my mind: one that is related to the way in which spiritual or metaphysical beliefs, which may not be scientifically proven as fixed truth, still have power in how we construct our lives and subjectively see the world.
Knight People Books & Gifts and Temple Sounds Singing Bowls, the host of the psychic fair, is located on Williams Street, right next to the shuttered Mama’s Italian Market and across the street from Wesleyan’s junior village. After walking a few hundred paces from my apartment building, I closed my umbrella and stepped onto the porch of the shop, noting the brochures near the door that advertise de Leon’s book: “The Mastery Book of Himalayan Singing Bowls.” Hidden behind large bushes, the exterior of the store is white with sage green trimming, and it looks not too different from a University-owned wood frame.
Once inside, however, I had the distinct sense of being quite far away from Wesleyan. Herbs, incense, and stones of every color line wooden bookshelves and hang on hooks on the canary-yellow walls. The pendulums and crystals that dangle from jewelry trees seem to be building up the momentum to swing. A selection of spirituality books show off their spines.
“We used to be more of a bookstore, but people don’t read anymore,” de Leon said with a laugh.
A small basket holds bumper stickers, including one that reads “I majored in liberal arts. Would you like fries with that?” On a shelf near the register sit stacks of Himalayan singing bowls: inverted metal bells that ring a sustained musical note when struck or stroked by a mallet. Singing bowls, the store’s specialty, can be purchased individually, but in the past the store has also offered private singing bowl sessions, which the brochure prices at $150 per hour.
Knight People, which de Leon and his wife Melissa de Leon opened in 1994, has changed its hours twice over the past few years. While it used to be open most days out of the week, de Leon decided to change the retail shop hours so that the storefront was only open on the first Sunday of every month at the same time as the store’s psychic fair, with continuous online sales at http://www.knightpeople.com/ and http://www.templesounds.net/, both of which are de Leon’s sites. The initial decrease in hours was prompted by de Leon’s decision to focus more hours on his online presence. However, as retail traffic has dwindled and many of his psychic readers have retired, de Leon has come to the decision in the past few days to replace the fair with an event that will feature only one psychic, Jane K. Manning. Now, the retail shop will now only be open from noon to 4 p.m. on the first Sunday of the month and open by appointment throughout the week. Online sales will continue.
Earlier this month, at the fair, de Leon said that he did not expect the decision-making process regarding whether to keep the shop and the fair open to be particularly difficult.
“Like, you know, your dad’s burning or is in a burning car, and you don’t make a decision whether you’re going to save him or not,” he said. “You go there and you drag him out of there. It’s not an intellectual process…I’m 63 years old, and business ain’t getting better. The internet took over everything, it killed all sorts of shops like this.”
Although de Leon repeatedly voiced concerns about the digital world, especially regarding the closure of retail stores, he has been able to make an adjustment online and make revenue from online content. Hanging on the yellow wall in the shop, next to the rows of incense, is a silver plaque certifying the number of subscribers to de Leon’s YouTube channel, templesounds, which features him and others playing and discussing the Himalayan singing bowls. Currently, templesounds has over 144,000 subscribers.
De Leon has been playing the singing bowls since around the time he and his wife, Melissa, opened Knight People, when he saw someone playing the bowls on television and was captivated by the music. The couple has been interested in the metaphysical realm for a long time before they opened the shop, even meeting near the astrology section in a bookstore.
“Joyce, my incredible psychic from years ago, said to me, ‘Emile, your wife is going to be much younger than you. She’s going to be pretty, dark haired, with no education, and Aquarius,” de Leon said. “About two, three years later, I’m in the bookstore, in the astrology section, and this girl walks in. And I say girl, because she was a lot younger than me…. She comes over to the astrology section. I look at her face and I’m just like, what a face on this girl. Most sensitive nose I’d ever seen. Most sensitive, creative, electric blue eyes…. Thirty-five years later, here we are.”
“Do you believe the psychic predicted your meeting?” I asked. He responded in the affirmative.
Along with talking to de Leon about the history of the shop and his beliefs about the universe, I also talked with Jane K. Manning, a psychic and children’s book writer from Deep River, Conn., who was working at the fair and who will continue readings at the shop. I asked Manning and de Leon what they would say to those who are skeptical of their psychic ability.
“Just try it out,” she answered.
“Remember,” de Leon interjected, “that a good majority of them, like the doctors, are bullshit. So to get a good one, it’s tough business. Same thing with a doctor, same thing with a psychic. It’s the exact same thing…. For big money? Forget those people. [Those who say] you got a curse on you? Forget those people…. If they’re going to loop you in for thousands of dollars, run out the door.”
“That is bullshit,” Manning agreed, her turquoise earrings swaying. “I’m skeptical too—be skeptical. Skepticism is good. I’m not afraid of that.”
Manning said she was born with a heightened psychic ability, and she decided in her twenties that she wanted to focus on it professionally.
“I would just kind of naturally go into a state of meditation when I was a little kid,” she said.
In addition to conducting psychic readings, Manning also calls herself a medium. Manning said she has been talking to “people from the other side” for almost the entire time she has been a practicing psychic. She says she realized she had the ability to have these conversations when, at the beginning of her career, she was packing up her stuff at an event she was working and she heard a voice calling for her to stay. The voice, she said, told her that there was a woman who needed her help as a medium. She listened to the voice, and facilitated a discussion between a customer and the customer’s dead husband, which she said helped her customer find closure.
After de Leon made a joke about Wesleyan students such as myself taking too long a time in his shop, I asked Manning whether she thought jokes at the expense of psychics contribute to the mainstream cultural skepticism of her profession. She answered that not only do psychics appreciate humor, but so do people who are no longer living.
“They like that energy, ’cause it lightens your vibration,” she said.
If I, as a Features Editor of The Argus, were a practicing psychic, I think I would like to interview people from the other side. I believe I would ask non-living persons excellent follow-up questions. I would like to get a clairvoyant vision so visceral and so revealing that to publish it in a newspaper would prove my abilities as objective, journalistic facts. This is partially because things that remain unseen—occurrences where truth “fluctuates”—can be difficult to report without selling them or discounting them entirely.
De Leon said that while Wesleyan used to be a more “eccentric place,” he no longer sees it as such. He is from a musical family, and though he never attended, de Leon said his sister graduated from Wesleyan with a music degree before going on to produce for Tom Brokaw of NBC News. His mother worked for 20 years as a private music instructor at Wesleyan. Still de Leon said that, more than anything, the University system provides a structured lifestyle for those who still need it.
“What I’m trying to say here is that it’s the experience that matters,” de Leon said. “Getting a degree is just a piece of paper. Of course, you don’t believe that yet because you’re up there, but trust me, you’ll believe it.”
“Let me just say that I’m not up there for the piece of paper, I’m there for the experience,” I countered, somewhat feebly.
“You know, 18 to 22…it’s like, arguably, the four best years of your goddamn life,” he said. “Now you’re going to be sitting in a school and doing what other people are telling you to do, and paying them lots of money to do that, in the four primest years of your life. Golden. Think about that.”
Though de Leon was hesitant to stereotype the current student body, he did allude to what he sees as three categories of Wesleyan students, which seemed to me vaguely reminiscent of Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses of baby, camel, and lion, only more tied to de Leon’s conceptions of soul age.
“There are three types of students who need a degree and who go to college: there’s what they call the baby soul, who will tie into a rigid religion and needs a level of structure in order to wake up in the morning and get through the day; the young soul…they’re not tied to a religion, but they’re definitely ambitious and they want power and they’ll go to a college such as this; and there’s the mature soul, the more artistic soul,” he said. “They’ll go for the genuine education. But a lot of time, your mature souls will not have the fortitude to go through a degree process and not be that comfortable with other people who sit in the same room…. They’re ready to leave the structure, but they’re not quite ready to say ‘Fuck you’ to the structure.”
De Leon’s ideas of everyone having a “soul age” that is different from their physical age is tied to his ideas about reincarnation, which he explained as permitting souls to live through many physical bodies and lives. A central question in life, he said, becomes trying to know and understand our soul.
If this story of my conversation with Manning and de Leon had a soul, there would be many reincarnations of it. One version of the story would be an exposé, in which I, a product of liberal arts, laid out the claims made by de Leon and Manning and then immediately disputed those claims with scientific studies, most of which determine psychic occurrences as being nothing more than coincidence. Another reincarnation of this article would be an economic analysis in which I analyzed the singing bowl market and critiqued how retail shops have been forced to make a digital shift to stay in business. And yet another would be to simply present this rainy Sunday in which I wandered into a shop and spoke with the owner about his worldview. To let the story live like this, in some sense, would be to channel the story in the same way a psychic would and in de Leon’s words, tap into a “fluctuating truth” about the universe.
At one point during our conversation, de Leon took a bronze-looking singing bowl from the shelf and gently struck the side, so that a clear, resonant tone reverberated around the shop. I closed my eyes and tried to listen to the different notes in the ring, as they faded one by one. The tone became so faint that, in the shop, I found myself second-guessing whether the noise I continued to hear was from the bowl still ringing or was simply the memory of the sound. But then, for a series of moments, this wondering about what was real and what I was imagining disappeared, and I was left with just the sound, only the sound, bringing me to the present.
“What do you think happens in that moment?” I asked, when I was certain the noise had ended.
“Same thing that is happening in every moment, except you’re more open to it,” de Leon answered.
“Once you start thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to quiet my mind down a bit,’ your mind’s not quiet anymore,” he continued. “See, the thing is, I can tell you’re intellectually based, probably pretty good up there, and that’s really good. You’ve got to have a strong mind. It allows you to do certain things, that maybe other people wouldn’t be able to do. But that’s just like a pretty face or a big muscle. In other words, your mind isn’t you.”
Standing in the middle of the store, I waited a moment, casting my eyes over the shelves of bowls, candles, and stones. I struggled to form my next question. Were not these materials, these mystical objects sold in the shop also just shiny instruments containing promises of enlightenment, like a good mind or a big muscle? I was reminded of a common critique of the spirituality industry, a critique that highlights that shops such as these sell self-discovery through consumerism.
“You don’t need any of this stuff, but it’s cool stuff,” de Leon responded. “You don’t need to eat a good dinner at a nice restaurant. You can eat dog food…but how do you want to approach your life? How do you want to do what you’re going to do? So, I mean, people can criticize…. It’s a serious, it’s serious business to find out who you are.”
At the end of our conversation, I purchased a small stone labeled as an orca geode, marbled with black and white swirls. Tucking the stone into my coat pocket, I made my way across the street, back onto campus.