NEW PORT RICHEY
The smell of burning sage and sound of acoustic music fill Sherry Stamback's small studio next to her house. She paints, communes with the dead, reads palms, does tarot card readings and gives classes on "artful meditation." Stamback, 43, calls herself a healer and an eclectic Pagan witch, and she prides herself on plucking the best from various religions and dogmas. She grew up in the Episcopal church, where she said she pushed the preacher's buttons by asking so many questions, like why does the Bible talk about "an eye for an eye" and also "turning the other cheek"?
She said she learned that "sometimes the answers you seek you will find outside (church) walls."
"All of us are saying the same thing," she added, "it's just you need to hear it in a different language sometimes."
Her business card reads the Rev. Sherry Stamback, "Prayerful Henna Artist." She was ordained online through Universal Life Church, based in California. Tattoos float up her arm and across her back, and pentagrams hang from her neck.
Clients come to her in "carloads" from Miami, and she has a following in the New Port Richey area. She communicates extensively via MySpace and Facebook.
As a henna reader, she said, she doodles on her clients' hands what resonates within their souls and tells them what areas of their life they need to work on. As they make progress, she said, that part of the henna design will fade.
The 30-minute henna readings cost $40. Tarot card readings run $80 per hour. Stamback said she can only give guidance, though.
"I encourage people to do their own work," she said. "I'm not going to make you better."
Troubles have reason
Stamback said she's "known things" since she was a child. As a teenager, she tried to turn it off because it scared her, made her strange. She said she would sense things, like car wrecks, days before they happened.
She said she was able to touch people with her hands and intuitively know where their pain was and how to move it and release it through massage.
She said she was burdened with the path of the healer until she knew how to use it.
"This was something I had when I showed up here on the planet," she said. "It wasn't taught by a practitioner."
She grew up in New Port Richey and attended Gulf High School. She has worked as a tattoo artist. She said she was in a serious relationship with an abusive man who drank himself to death when Stamback was 24. She has done her time with drugs and alcohol, she admits.
"My whole life was a challenge," she said.
She said she has found that the best healers are the ones who have "walked the path of the troubled, and found their way through it."
To escape her memories, she moved to rural Vermont as a single mother with a young daughter. A few years later, she had a son, and they stayed in Vermont for 14 years.
It was there that Stamback had an epiphany while praying with a group on a mountaintop. She realized "that all of the troubles had a reason."
Now she embraces her "esoteric gifts" and uses them to help others with their problems or just to find their own ways.
Leslie Barile, who lives in Port Richey, heard about Stamback through a friend three years ago and decided to go see her. The two women went to Gulf High School together, but they didn't know each other at the time.
Barile worked as a guidance counselor in the Pasco County school system for 15 years until she had her daughter 4 1/2 years ago. Then she was torn whether she should go back to work.
She had a reading and Stamback told her, without prompting, not to go back to the school system.
"It kind of reverberated through my head," said Barile, 43.
So she changed direction, with Stamback's guidance, and ended up starting spatimebaby.com, a company that sells baby bathing supplies.
"Looking back on what she said, that has stuck with me."
She continues to see Stamback for what she considers a kind of counseling.
"Being a guidance counselor, that's how I look at it. It's like therapy but in a different light," she said. "It's spiritual guidance."
Stamback doesn't allow questions up front, but prefers to get right into her readings. She sits with her clients knee-to-knee at a small round table in her studio, and she holds their hands so they know they're "not alone on their journey."
But as kind and comforting as she can be, she doesn't shy away from telling clients if they haven't worked hard enough or accepted responsibility for something.
"I always shoot from the hip and tell them exactly how it is," she said.
Some people aren't open to what she's saying, but she gets excited when she suddenly sees the "light bulb go on."
"I help people heal their souls if they're willing to take direction," she said.
During readings she requires her clients to take pages of notes and gives them homework and suggests books to read.
"The future can always be altered by your actions today," she said.
Stamback's children are now 22 and 16, and she's getting married soon. She wears a traditional diamond engagement ring and a red string around her finger, a symbol to ward off negative energy. Her fiancé is the reason she came back to New Port Richey, she said, which is something she never thought she would do.
Stamback said she tries never to judge anyone else's religion or beliefs, but rather to take something positive away from her interactions with others, and to sometimes incorporate them into her own practice.
She said she's constantly learning new things and is quick to write down a book that someone recommends.
"I always reserve the right to alter the way I do things as I go," she said.