A Brush With Spirit
©2019, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.

"We believe that the highest morality is contained in the Golden Rule: 'Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.'"
--From the Declaration of Principles adopted by the National Spiritualist Association, Chicago, Illinois, 1899.

Colleen had been in and out of my life since we met at one of the companies that employed me as a computer consultant. Colleen was also doing technical work for the same firm and we hit it off immediately, becoming fast and close friends.

There had been a long break and many changes in both of our lives since that time more than thirty years before. Colleen knew that I had been going through particularly difficult times. She also knew that I described myself as "more spiritual than religious." So she thought that perhaps it would be nice for me to visit a spiritual location not far from where I lived. I'd never heard of it so I agreed. I was ready for an adventure.

During the drive our friendship picked up right where it had left off last time. It was nice, comfortable. We left the superhighway miles past where we got on, but as happens during soulful conversations, it didn't seem to take any time at all. A few more miles down back roads and we arrived at our destination.

It was still very much the off-season. The place looked more like a typical village than it didn't upon entry, though with a large auditorium not far from the way in. There were narrow streets and small mostly well-kept houses along them, some painted in very bright colors and some adorned with intricate gingerbread detail. We found a place to park and Colleen brought me into the services that were held at one of the several churches in town.

I had never been to a Spiritualist service. I was was raised Catholic, switched to Episcopal, and then pretty much gave up on organized religion entirely. I had no particular expectations and an open mind. There was an inspirational talk, there were a few hymns, there was a healing time and there were messages, given by mediums, from loved ones... who were "in spirit." That belief was and is a key distinction of the Spiritualist tradition: people who have passed on are still with us, in spirit, and they can and do communicate with us.

I liked the service, and more importantly, I liked the sense of community. I was welcomed as a visitor and not just in a superficial way. It helped that Colleen was a frequent participant in these services and at this particular church. In fact, she too gave messages on a regular basis.

As nice as this was, it was only part of the visit. After the service, we took a walk around the village. I think we covered every street, which was not difficult. There was a small gift shop open which sold items needed by the spiritual community, as well as the more basic souvenirs, accessories, and snacks.

And then there was small wooded area which had a short walking trail meandering through it. This was a true old-growth forest. Trees that fell were left where they landed to nourish the flora and fauna which would follow. There is something special about a forest to begin with, but this one had a particular energy to it that I couldn't quite explain. It had gotten warmer as the day progressed, but inside these woods it felt quite a bit cooler.

In the center of this woodlands was a particularly important gathering location. People had been coming to it for decades to both seek and provide help and inspiration. It was set up like an outdoor church, with two rows of plain benches either side of an aisle. In front of these, where one might see an altar in other churches, there was a large tree stump.

"Have a look," Colleen invited.

I did. In fact, I climbed up onto the stump. It seemed enormous but was probably only about four feet in diameter. I could see how people might be moved to say inspirational things from here. I was also reminded of the term "stump speech," made by candidates for political office atop tree stumps all over the country, where anyone would listen, I supposed. The two concepts—politics and spirituality-- seemed to be in conflict with each other, particularly in the times in which we were living.

Perhaps this wasn't the best perspective for me to take in the surroundings. That was alright. Maybe I wasn't ready to be standing up here on this stump. No worries; I carefully made my way back down.

We sat down on the left hand bench in the front row and were silent for a few moments. I felt my equilibrium return, and then some. In the quiet and stillness of the woods, with no one else around except the two of us, there was a sensation of peace and calm.

"What do you think?" Colleen asked.

I thought for a moment, and replied, "It feels right."

"Do you sense the energy here?"

"Yes, I do."

We talked more. Colleen gave me more background on the history of the place and how she was introduced to it.


Wait a minute.


I was trained as a journalist, always looking for the facts of the matter. When it became clear that wasn't going to be my chosen field after all, I went into computer science, which is nothing but bits and bytes and explicit instructions, which must be followed or else the results could be unpredictable. And then I became a formally trained and recognized specialist in scientifically-based process improvement. There was no wiggle room on this: In God We Trust, All Others Must Bring Data, as W. Edwards Deming, one of the key figures in quality control, insisted.

So what was this about "feeling right?"

On the other hand, what was wrong about simply feeling right?

We talked more. Colleen gave me more background on the history of the place and how she was introduced to it. I appreciated that it was mentioned during the service we'd attended that it was alright to be skeptical, ask questions, and reach a personal understanding. I didn't see that kind of leeway in any number of organized religions. Perhaps that's as far as I should comment right now.

"Are you ready to go?" I asked.

"No... not yet." Colleen had a bit of a faraway look in her eyes. I thought, perhaps presumptuously and maybe preposterously, that she was enjoying my company as much as I was enjoying hers. We missed each other, that was clear.

But no, that wasn't the reason Colleen felt the need to stay.

A woman walked into the space with another woman and a man. They were traveling all together, but as they came closer to where we were, it became more apparent to me that the woman who was leading was the one who felt the need to be in the woods. I don't know how I knew this, though.

Ahem, maybe it was simply obvious from the way she led the others, the journalist part of me reported.

This first woman approached the stump as her companions held back a little bit. As I had just a few minutes before, she climbed up onto the stump. I thought I heard her say something about wanting to know what it was like.

And a few seconds later, she started to weep uncontrollably.

A deep wave of empathy washed over me. What was wrong? These didn't seem like tears of joy to me. What could have caused such a reaction so quickly?

I looked at Colleen and she looked at me. "Don't worry," she assured.

The woman's companions quickly moved up to her and helped her down from the stump. She appeared to be in a state of near collapse. They got her over to the right hand bench in the front row. Colleen got up and went to her and I followed just behind.

"Are you alright?" Colleen asked.

The woman was still crying profusely.

"She does so much for other people," the man with her said, "and she doesn't take care of herself."

"OK," Colleen replied. "Here, take my hand. I'm a medium. First thing you need to do is breathe."

The woman inhaled and exhaled in little bursts, as we all might do after we've been crying violently.

"That's it." Colleen encouraged. "Just focus on that, it'll become more regular."

The other woman that was with her said, "She wanted us to take her here, was that a mistake?"

"No," Colleen responded. "She is letting out whatever it is that needs to be let out. It'll be fine."

Turning gently to the woman whose hand she was still holding, Colleen asked, "Can I heal you?"

The woman nodded.

Colleen moved behind her around the back side of the bench. She placed her hands on the woman's shoulders. "Please tell me your name," she asked very softly.

"Alexis," she responded in between sobs which were not nearly as intense as they were even a few moments before.

"OK, Alexis, can you put your feet flat on the ground for me?"

She did so.

"Keep breathing. It's going to be OK."

Colleen was silent for a while, just carefully and gently touching Alexis' shoulders. Her two companions moved back a bit, which allowed me to move closer and get down on one knee so that I was at her level and not standing over her. I usually did this when I wanted to not intimidate people. I had no idea why I did that just then. Technically, I wasn't even part of this proceeding.


Colleen said a few things, I don't remember what, and as she told me later, she didn't either; and continued to touch her shoulders, then fell silent again. None of the rest of us were speaking. I could hear a light wind in the trees, and I felt like I was also part of this healing.

Colleen removed her hands. "How are you feeling?"

Alexis had stopped crying, but still looked shaken. "Better. Thank you."

"Just take your time. There is a lot of energy here and you were overwhelmed by it."

I don't think there was any question about that.

I have nearly always believed that there is a bond among people that we don't completely understand. That bond creates energy, and feelings, sometimes good and sometimes not. That's a spiritual response.

But it's also already firmly established that physical contact between people releases endorphins. And endorphins make us feel better and happier. That's a scientific response.

Alexis motioned to get up and her companions insisted that she sit down. I was still at her left, crouched down.

And I noticed something: she had the word "Believe" tattooed on her left wrist. It looked like that had been there for a while.

"I'm not a healer," I said, "But I am an observer. And I see that you have 'Believe' on your wrist, but it's facing outward, so that everyone else can see it. I think maybe you need to make sure you take that message in for yourself as well. Point that word in your own direction."

Where those words came from, I simply do not know.

"He's right," Alexis' male companion said. "Make sure you give yourself what you give to other people."

"Thank you," Alexis said softly. Colleen came around to the front of the bench and offered more encouragement. I began to get up and move to a more polite distance away, not wanting to crowd since something told me that I had said everything I needed to say.

And that's when I saw something I had not noticed before. Colleen and I had come right up the walkway between the two rows of benches, and we had been sitting at the end of the left hand benches that was right next to the walkway. So I don't know how I could have missed this.

A small camel hair paintbrush.

It was very simple, the kind one buys in packages of ten, fifteen or twenty at craft stores and I would have bought in the five and ten when I was a kid.

Instantly I felt a huge rush of energy.

I knew exactly what to do with that paintbrush, and I felt strongly that I hadn't seen it before for a reason.

I thought of another friend, whom I'd known for only a relatively short time. We bonded quickly. She was the first to note that we were "kindred spirits." To say that she was going through a difficult time when we met was an understatement; it seemed as if multiple forest fires were burning all around her. I did my best to help but I also knew that she was strong and proud and wanted to make it on her own. Sometimes I would have to ask her, "OK, do you want gentle advice or tough love?" She would always choose the latter.

One time she told me that she once painted. She started to tell me why she didn't anymore, but suddenly stopped—in mid-sentence. It was too painful, I decided. I didn't bring it up again and she didn't either.

And yet I saw the paintbrush right there next to the bench where Colleen and the rest of us had helped Alexis, and I immediately thought of my friend. No, I was consumed by the thought of my friend and how she had loved to paint.

Wait, the journalist, programmer, and fact-based process improver called out in unison. This makes no sense. There wasn't a paintbrush there and then there was? You just didn't see it before. You were simply paying attention to something else. There is nothing Twilight Zone about this.

Well, if that's true, I countered to my more rational side, how is it that I would show up at this very place at this very time and see it, and think of my friend? Isn't that just a little bit too coincidental?

You're confusing correlation with causality, the fact-based process improver chided. You even teach this concept, and now you're falling prey to it?

Then another unexpected voice joined the internal fray: What makes you think that it means anything to see this paintbrush? Just because you want your friend to start painting again, that doesn't mean that she wants to start painting again. What gives you the right to do anything with this? Just leave it where it is.

While this debate raged, we offered more words of encouragement to Alexis. She and her traveling companions told Colleen and me where they were from and how they had driven more than a few hours to this spiritual place. Colleen explained how she first encountered the energy and inspiration that many others had seen over time, and how she too was just about pulled inside out by it. Alexis' companions formally introduced themselves as her brother and his wife, and talked a bit about the spirituality of their own lives.

Without missing a beat Colleen asided to me, "You know, if you place an object on the stump, it tells spirit about a wish someone has. It doesn't have to be your wish."

Maybe there was something about spirits, because I thought she hadn't seen my observation of the paintbrush at all.

And then she went right back to our conversation with Alexis, who was feeling much better, but clearly tired out. My process improver pointed out that it is a natural reaction to be exhausted after a good long cry, and that I had personally experienced this and it had nothing to do with any such spirits.

Oh, yeah? I countered back? How do you know? How does anyone? The human race has learned so much, and yet we sometimes, probably not nearly often enough, admit that there is so very little we actually know. Maybe there really is a force that binds us all together. Maybe the reason that this is argued away is that it can be the most powerful thing we have ever known, or will ever know. And maybe it's dangerous to those who would rather divide us rather than have all of humanity be as one, together. Helping. Being there. Holding space for each other.

My friend who once painted and I had experienced an ebb and flow of the intensity of our connection. That was for sure, and it was just the way friendship always worked.

I looked at the paintbrush again.

So, was I to do something with it or not?

"Ready to go, Alexis?" her brother asked. "We can see the rest of the place."

"Yes, I think so," she said, getting up for the first time.

We all began to move along the path which led back into the woods. I glanced one more time at the paintbrush.

And at that moment it was clear to me what to do. Nothing could come of this if I didn't try. Whether to try wasn't mine to decide.

"I'll be right there," I said.

I picked up the paintbrush, and walked over to the stump. I gently placed it atop the stump and silently hoped it would make a difference.

I caught up to the rest of the group. When we reached a point where paths diverged, Colleen said that she wanted to linger a while longer. We all exchanged hugs with everyone else. For the first time I noticed a distinct blueness to Alexis' eyes. Contact lenses, most likely, but something else behind them... the willingness to help, just as her companions had described.

I wished Alexis well. "Remember that ‘Believe' is for you too," I repeated.

"Thank you."

Colleen gently led me down the path which didn't exit the woods. "I want them to get ahead of us. I was happy to help but now it's her turn to take the energy from here and do something with it."

She paused.

"Do you see now why I wasn't ready to go yet? I was meant to be there."

"Yes," I agreed.

And just maybe I understood why I needed to be there as well.