The Souls of Ordinary Things

Going through back issues of Alternative Therapies in Health Medicine, I came across one of Dr. Larry Dossey’s profound and intricate essays that he called editorials—they were far more than that—when he was the editor of that journal.  It’s  called “When Stones Speak: Toward a Reenchantment of the World.”

I wish I could link it the way I can a web site, but it’s in a scholarly journal you’d have to get through an academic library database. It would be worth the effort to look it up if you can. It’s in Vol. 2 #4, pp 8-13 and 97-98, July 1996.

Dossey examines the possibility that consciousness can move beyond human minds—that it pervades all things, from fish to musical instruments to the implements a physician uses again and again in the practice of medicine. He suggests that we share traces of our souls with our objects, and cites scientists who consider seriously that inanimate things are “rich with pattern and information.”

If you’re a regular listener to Car Talk on NPR, you’ve already thought about this, of course. The discussion of whether cars have souls has been going on for some time. The callers and the hosts seem to agree that some cars have souls and some don’t. There have been some fascinating conversations about detecting the presence of a car’s soul. I remember a neighbor who had to part with his ancient VW Rabbit when it was beyond repair. He went down to the parking lot of our apartment building and sat with the Rabbit late at night, as if it was a dying friend. To him, that car had a soul. They had a relationship.

My new Environmental Defense Fund thanks-for-contributing water bottle arrived in the mail today. Shiny brushed aluminum decorated with the EDF logo and the face and front paws of a polar bear happily basking on the edge of some ice, it’s a replacement for the one I lost. Identical bear. But no soul. The old bottle was dented and scratched from being dropped on the cement at Santa Fe Bandstand. The Robert Mirabal concert was in one dent, a memory in the soul of the thing. Another dent remembers me waltzing to Michael Hearne’s rendition of “New Mexico Rain.”

My psychic protagonist Mae Martin could pick up an object like that bottle and read the stories in its soul, if she had a reason to look for them. Many years ago I heard John Sebastian sing a song about lying back on the bed in some hotel and listening to the stories it could tell. I think it replayed for me subconsciously when I wrote the prologue of The Calling, and the scene in which Mae realizes, with some dismay, that she can listen to the stories an old bed can tell.

The energy carried by ordinary things can be negative as well as positive, haunting and dark, not always nostalgic. Something clings to a murder weapon, and to a house where violence took place. In some indigenous traditions the names of the dead leave the world with them. Saying the name can call back the ghost. Relatives may give away everything that belonged to the dead, sending the spirit on its way. Our things may not only trigger our memories, they may have memories of their own. Would that explain famous “cursed” objects that carry bad luck?

My Zuni fetishes were created to have spirits. My barefoot running shoes have acquired their souls with time. My yoga mats have energy in them, but not souls. Which things do you own that have souls?

Sacred Dirt

As anyone who has read my books and this blog knows, I’m intrigued by healing and mysterious phenomena. Something I found in a closet a few weeks ago got me thinking about miracles.


El Santuario de Chimayo in northern New Mexico was built on a site sacred to the native Tewa people. It is known as the Lourdes of the Southwest. In keeping with the nature of this part of the world, it does not have healing waters like Lourdes, but healing dirt. The architecture is simple and beautiful, like all old churches in New Mexico. A fence around the churchyard is covered with testimonials, tiny crosses and other small works of art, placed there by grateful people who were healed. Inside a small room to the side of the main sanctuary is a hole in the ground. Legend says that with a loaves-and-fishes kind of abundance, this hole never gets deeper, though year after year people have been scooping small amounts of the dirt from it for healing. The priest who was there the day I visited told me that skeptics suspected him of filling it up with dirt from somewhere else while no one was watching. He said he didn’t. According to the Santuario’s own web site, though, the sacred dirt is in fact replenished from nearby hillsides.

I packed my little plastic bag of Chimayo dirt when I moved from Santa Fe and forgot about it. This winter I was cleaning a closet and found it in a box. Hm. My sprained left middle toe was taking way too long to get well. Placebo or not, a little dust bath of this soft beige earth did wonders. The next day it didn’t hurt to walk.

My experience wasn’t a miracle, more like a placebo-induced acceleration. I was due to recover. But real miracles apparently do happen.  Dr. Larry Dossey wrote a fascinating editorial on documented miracles, some of which took place at Lourdes. Miracles don’t seem to happen to a particular person for any clear reason. Devout people who are suffering are not always healed, but some are.  Those who are healed don’t always have patterns of faith or behavior that predict susceptibility to miracles.

“These cures happen not just to those who have saintly dispositions, fierce determination, or positive thoughts, but to reprobates and passive quitters as well. Exceptions can be found to any psychological pattern yet advanced. I rather like this confused state of affairs. It suggests that no one has a monopoly on miracle cures … We ought to come clean and admit the obvious: we don’t know why spontaneous healings happen.”

What we  do know with certainty is that they happen. The International Medical Commission of Lourdes keeps meticulous records of its healings, and of before and after diagnoses of those who receive them. The miracles have to be proven by modern medicine.

Dossey describes the case of man who was apparently cured by a sham treatment in modern medicine as miraculously as others were cured at Lourdes. Mr. G., an elderly man with advanced lymphoma that had spread to his bone marrow, chest, abdomen and lymph nodes was beyond treatment, but so debilitated his physicians wanted to admit to him to the hospital. To justify admission they had to come up with a treatment so they  “began irradiating a single lymph node in his groin, knowing this was a sham treatment that would satisfy the hospital authorities.”

Though he seemed ready to die at first, Mr. G gradually got stronger and gained weight. His pain subsided. He was discharged to a nursing home. Over subsequent months the masses in his body shrank. 83 at the time of his hospitalization, he lived several years  longer in the nursing home, and his physical condition returned to normal. He said he felt better than ever.

If Lourdes and Chimayo healings are placebo responses, some people must have more faith in the sacred power behind the water and the dirt than in the treatments they’ve been given by health care professionals—unlike Mr. G.

Imagine being so powerful in your own mind that you can change your physiology just by belief. This belief, as far as I can tell, though, is seldom if ever a belief in one’s own power but in something beyond the self, whether medical or divine. Every drug trial includes a placebo arm. The medicine has to prove that it’s more effective than belief alone in healing the body. A body which is made, in essence, of water and dirt.

When the laws of nature appear to be occasionally broken, what’s going on? Can something or Someone reach in from another aspect of reality and move molecules, or are these phenomena natural but not fully understood? Maybe some events are spiritual and others psycho-physiological—or maybe there’s no difference between the two except in our perceptions and our labels.

That’s a mystery I am content not to solve. Like Dr. Dossey, I like this uncertainty.


Work cited: Dossey, L. Canceled Funerals: A Look at Miracle Cures, Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 1998; 4 (2)10-18,116-119

Santuario web site: