Elephants, moms, and memories

UnknownAfter starting Jodi Picoult’s novel, “Leaving Time,” I wasn’t sure I wanted to finish it. A reference to an elephant named Mary being tried and hanged for murder in 1916 in Tennessee led me to look it up to see if this really happened. Sadly, it did, and it haunted me.

I was drawn in by the story, though, and couldn’t resist a tale that included a stumbling, self-doubting psychic. So I forged ahead.

Thirteen-year-old Jenna is a solitary soul who reminded me a little of Tatum O’Neal’s character in the movie, “Paper Moon.” Jenna’s mother, Alice, was an elephant researcher with a particular passion for studying how elephants grieve. Her brilliant, mentally ill father, Thomas, ran the New England elephant sanctuary where they lived and worked.

The novel hinges on what happened, or may have happened, on a night when Jenna was  three and Alice disappeared under mysterious circumstances. As a young teen, she’s busy working the missing-persons sites on the Internet and poring over her mother’s old journals, longing for the mother she both remembers and never knew. On the fringes of her life are her grandmother, with whom she lives, and her father, who now calls a psychiatric hospital home. Jenna finally hires jaded private investigator Virgil, who worked on her mother’s case when he was a police officer; and disgraced former celebrity psychic Serenity.

A precocious child, a boozy ex-cop, and a psychic with a past. Cue the cute music, right? The three form an uneasy, unlikely alliance as they try to piece together what happened that night, what led up to it, and who might know. Another sanctuary worker, Nevvie, died — accidentally trampled by an elephant, so the police report said — the night Alice disappeared. Was Alice responsible for Nevvie’s death, or did Alice herself die at the hands of her increasingly unstable husband?

The hardest question is the one Jenna has to face: If her mother is alive, why did she leave Jenna behind? As Virgil and Serenity draw closer to the answer, they increasingly want to protect her from it. Until Jenna takes the case back into her own hands and hops a bus for Tennessee.

And that’s just the humans. The elephants themselves, one named Maura in particular, have their own bonds and losses. Elephants are exemplary mothers; mother and baby elephants are part of a complex social structure. When Maura’s calf dies, Alice — both as a scientist studying elephant grief and as a steward and friend of the elephants — stays with her as they all process what has happened.

Grief is an experience of all creatures great and small. I had two peppered corydoras catfish in my aquarium, and when one died, the other stayed by his body for several hours.

Back to the book. The story resolved in a way I probably should have picked up on earlier — but I’m kind of glad I didn’t. You may find yourself, as I did, going back and reading earlier scenes.

A medium at large

“You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: Life-Changing Lessons from Heaven,” by Theresa Caputo with Kristina Grish (2014)

To me, Theresa Caputo’s gift for connecting the living and the dead is more believable than what happens on her reality TV show, “Long Island Medium,” or at her live events. However, I do enjoy the show and was happy to have had the opportunity to see her in person when she came to Fort Wayne last year.

Reality TV is — well, reality TV, and while any psychic or medium is going to have hits and misses, only the big hits make the final cut. As for the live experience — you have a theater packed with ticket holders, many of whom are grieving and quite anxious to be randomly read. Then there are the non-ticket holding spirits who want to get a word in. Even with her gregarious personality, how can a psychic medium who has struggled with anxiety, as Theresa has, do readings in the midst of such intense energy? That atmosphere seems ripe for scrambled signals.

However — when I look behind the hype and the heels (which also can’t be good for the “chi”), I see a woman who has struggled to understand and accept her God-given gifts and is, like the rest of us, just trying to put and keep it all together. It also helps that Theresa is my age (a fellow ’80s stone-washed jeans survivor), and I love that she keeps using that old cassette recorder.

On to the book. Instead of a progressive narrative, it’s an amalgamation of topics on issues such as faith, authenticity, and gratitude, each underscored by Theresa’s own experiences and those of her clients with Spirit. The lessons build on and inform each other, “but you won’t get lost if you jump around based on how you’re feeling that day,” as Theresa says in the intro.

True to her general theme, she emphasizes that our loved ones really are present and eager to continue to help from the other side. They cared when they were alive, and death does not stop them from doing so, especially if they are part of our soul circle. “If you’ve got work to do, (your mother’s) soul will continue to meddle and help your soul graduate to the appropriate level,” she writes.

Chapter 10, “Intuition Ain’t Just for Psychics Anymore” is actually pretty useful. Everyone has some level of intuition, and it’s an important navigation tool here in the physical world, if we are willing to use and trust it. It’s never wrong, although it may take you in a roundabout way to where you’re meant to be, Theresa says. When we are traveling that roundabout way, it’s easy to think our intuition has screwed up and sent us down the wrong path. No way, she says — Spirit always knows the way and what we need at each step. “Guidance isn’t always obvious, but if it were, you’d never have to intuitively search for meaning and thus, learn many lessons,” she says.

Again, the breadth of topics here precludes looking at all of them, but that chapter on intuition stood out for me. If you are interested in how intuition works, whether you associate it with the P word (psychic) or not, it’s worth checking out.