Seeing a Ghost

ghost

As research for the seventh Mae Martin book, I recently read a book on paranormal investigation techniques by a professional skeptic. It reminded me of this post I wrote three years ago, which some of my current blog readers may not have seen, so I’ve updated and recycled it.

Once in a while, writing paranormal mysteries, I need to introduce a character who is no longer alive.* In Shaman’s Blues, Mae has no concept of ghosts at first, but Jamie, an anthropologist’s son, assures her that every culture has them.

Ghosts fascinate us, even when we don’t believe in them. People sign up for ghost tours of historic districts, and some choose the option to get the presumably haunted room at a B&B. Part of the attraction in ghost stories is the curious pleasure of safely experienced negative emotions. There is something frightening about an encounter with the dead, and most ghosts are said to have fallen into the place between worlds through tragedy. By seeking out ghosts, we can dip into terror and sadness for a quick swim and come back out, invigorated by the plunge.

It’s different for the ghost. Stuck in the crack between two worlds, attached to earthly life yet incapable of living it, looking, perhaps, for one particular soul, the ghost must be frustrated, bewildered and lonely. No wonder they behave badly sometimes. It can’t be much of an afterlife.

I say that lightly, but at the moment that I met a ghost, I was scared to the bone. It was quite some time ago, but I can still feel her when I think about her.

The cold is what made her frightening.

I was a college student on Christmas break visiting my sister and her husband, and my boyfriend and I stayed in the attic bedroom of their old house. In the dark before dawn, the alarm went off, and my boyfriend got up to go to work. We spoke briefly, kissed goodbye, and he left. Wide awake, I stayed in bed under a heap of quilts and blankets, hoping I could go back to sleep. Our shared body heat had made a cozy nest of the bed and I didn’t want to get up early on my vacation.

I snuggled the blankets around me—and was suddenly chilled. I wasn’t alone. A woman’s head and shoulders floated on the far side of the room. She stared at me, her face stern and judgmental over a high-collared dress, her hair pulled back in a severe tight bun. I was terrified, not by her apparent resentment, but by the deep, unnatural chill. At the same time, I thought her features were like the country comedian Minnie Pearl. I’ve cited Stephen King’s Danse Macabre in a book review before, and it fits here: comedy and horror go hand in hand. I pulled the blanket over my head until the cold went away.

Prior to that, I didn’t believe in ghosts. I’m not sure I do now, either, but it’s like what anthropologist Michael Harner says about shamans not believing in spirits. They don’t have to. They know.

*****

*My books containing characters who are ghosts or spirits are Shamans’ Blues and Soul Loss.soul ebookshaman

 

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The Fascination of What’s Difficult

I memorized this poem years ago when I was working in theater and also pursuing a degree in a new field. It struck me as the perfect fit when I used it as the introduction to a research paper on stress and  health. To me, it describes the reaction of the human spirit to the demands of work—work we once chose with idealism and commitment but which now consumes us. William Butler Yeats, no doubt, rewrote the poem many times to achieve such simplicity and strength, yet the words seem to rush out in a flow of passion.

My father was my role model in many ways, the kind of person I aspire to be, with his gentleness, humor, open-mindedness, warmth, community engagement and enjoyment of the arts. He retired early from his management job to run his own small business selling specialized supplies to bird watchers. In many ways he was a cautious person, but he had the courage to risk a change when it was time. People tell me I’ve been glowing since I decided to retire early. Revisiting this poem after I’ve acted on the need it expresses, I get more out of it than ever.

How does it speak to you?

 

The Fascination of What’s Difficult

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt

That must, as if it had not holy blood

Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud

Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt

as though it dragged road metal. My curse on plays

That have to be set up in fifty ways,

On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,

Theater business, management of men.

I swear before the dawn comes round again

I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.

Shrines

peacock-feather In Martyn V. Halm’s one-of-a-kind suspense novel, In Pocket, the narrator Wolfgang, a pickpocket, begins to doubts the motives of a young woman who befriends him because her shrines don’t seem authentic. He says that in his observations of women’s homes, they make shrines. He doesn’t mean religious ones but highly personal arrangements of objects that honor special aspects of each woman’s life.  When I think of friends’ houses and apartments, the most common shrine is the family pictures shrine, but I’ve seen idiosyncratic ones. I recall a friend who had peacock feathers and other objects arranged around a mirrored dressing stand on the hall landing, her shrine to I know not what, but it had a kind of art deco bordello feeling to it.

Some people’s kitchens are shrines, arranged to honor the gods of nourishment and conviviality. My academic colleagues’ offices are shrines to scholarship, with diplomas and books and journals—but also softened with mini-shrines to family. In my books, I’ve used this kind of imagery—Charlie’s door and office in The Calling are the most vivid example—as a way of revealing character and also implying a mystery. Why do people  build the shrines they do?

I have so much meaningful art around me that my whole home is a shrine. And then I look at the clutter, the heap of writing reference books, the heap of journals on alternative medicine, the stack of books and magazines I’m reading, the notes on my work in progress spread on the left side of my desk, and I think—that’s not clutter, those are shrines. Shrines to reading and writing.

When I move to a smaller space, I’ll be parting with slice-of-life shrines, eccentric random gifts with stories behind them. A Roswell NM alien-face paper fan a friend gave me at the Mescalero ceremonies many years ago. A Gumby one of my yoga students gave me. A stuffed toy tree frog. I’ll trust my heart to store the people and memories I echo back to myself with things like these little green creatures. Sooner or later, we all part with everything we own. Practicing non-attachment seems abstract at times, but not when I am taking down my shrines.gumbyleaning2

Everyone is my Teacher

640px-very_large_array_cloudsIt’s surprising what you can have in common with someone when at first it seems there might be nothing. At a friend’s birthday dinner party, I was seated next to a graduate student in astrophysics who specializes in radio astronomy, a young man whose hobbies include ice climbing. All these things are fascinating, but far out of my realm of experience and expertise. We  managed to make conversation, though, and somehow discovered a mutual interest in meditation. I’m not sure how we got there. Perhaps from talking about his childhood in Vietnam and how he’s not a practicing Buddhist but follows the philosophy without the religion, or perhaps from talking about my work teaching yoga. “I can learn from you,” he said. “Everyone is my teacher.”

I didn’t feel as though I taught him anything. However, he did, through example, teach me. He was so enthusiastic about adopting daily meditation, so aware of its benefits in the stressful life of a Ph.D. student. I’m older and have been practicing longer, but his deep gratitude for the effects of this simple commitment reached me. Yes, I also practice daily, but how mindful has my mindfulness been? Could I take a little longer, become a little quieter?

His work in radio astronomy is listening—finding ways to hear the universe. It works for me as a metaphor for meditation and for everyone being my teacher. What subtle signals have I not yet heard?