Monday, March 12, 2012


Pagan Blog Prompt: Ghosts

I've never seen a ghost.

At least, I've never seen anything spooky or spectral outside of my dreams. I've had plenty of experience with synchronicity and overwhelming feeling related to those who have parted this life. I've also spent my fair share of time in Lily Dale, NY and have visited the site where the Fox Sisters first heard the Rochester rappings that began the modern Spiritualist movement.* At Lily Dale my mother, father, husband, and daughter have all received readings. No one ever seems to select me for that sort of thing. Too bad. I think I'd like that.

I guess I don't think too much on this topic. I do study the history of Spiritualism in the United States and can tell you quite a bit about how Spiritualism is connected to other spiritual and religious movements such as Theosophy, Neo-Paganism, and the New Age, not to mention its long relationship with free thought and secular humanism. I can also tell you about how it was the Quakers who ensured that it would become a serious religious phenomenon rather than a backwoods flash in the pan. I might even tell you in what ways I see connections between Spiritualism and Quaker worship, belief, and experience, and that's all well and good....But I've never heard or seen a ghost.

There were all the times when I used to speak to my great grandparents as a child long after they died. For instance, throughout childhood I chatted to my deceased great-grandmother and worried about whether or not she would be proud of me, and I used to ask my grandfather's father, who died almost 60 years before my birth, to help me with the door. You see, the door to my grandparents' front porch was sticky and I could not turn the knob on my own. Great Grandpa's old-timey picture hung in an old oval frame high up on the wall by that door. There's a kind of sepia sternness in that picture if you don't notice how the eyes smile over his prodigious moustache. I look into those eyes and say, "Grandpa, would you help me with this door?" and the door would open nice as you please. I didn't think there was anything so funny about that. Of course he would help me. I was a great-grandchild!

There have been the many conversations I've had with my Grandpa. He and I often have conversations about caring for the family and responding to folks with generosity. He died 13 years ago. Our conversations have not stopped. Since his death, each time I see a hummingbird, I know he is near. Sometimes I see him in my dreams. He tells me to be gentle. He reminds me to be kind.

Dreams are funny. There are surreal dreams, and flying dreams, and running dreams. There are house and baby dreams and oh-my-god-where-are-my-pants dreams. There are profound religious dreams and dreamy dreams...and there are those dreams in which you know you are dreaming, and you know the person you are talking to is no longer part of the waking, living world. After my father's best friend was killed seven years ago, I began to see him in these dreams. In the waking world, his death continues to be a kind of nightmare for all of us who loved him. It was a sudden and violent death, an insulting and unjust death for a man of such peaceful convictions. It is hard for me not to cry in anger when I think of the unfairness of it. It is hard to see the shadow of sorrow cross my father's face when his best friend's name is mentioned.

My father has looked after his friend's wife and daughters, being present for them in memory of Ken. And in his way, Ken has been present for my father too. In my dreams, I watch my father working and see that Ken is with him, looking at Dad a bit sadly because Dad can't see him anymore and they miss each other so much. What a pair they were! Bad-assed pacifists and liberals the both of them. It is does not seem right, or even real, that they can no longer play ball together or joke and laugh and cuss together, or talk politics or march in protest together. But they are still together. It seems to me that death does not end relationships, it merely changes the rules of conversation. Ken died but did not go away. Not really. He stands with my father, as he did in life. Death cannot unmake brothers.

No, I've never seen a ghost, but there have been plenty of times when my hands have written words, expressions, and entire concepts that I did not understand until after they were written. I have fallen in love, again and again, with persons dead and gone as I, as an historian, have read their words, their stories, their lives. (Historians are necromancers you know. We bring the dead back to life.) As a mother, I have schooled my children in the principles and passions of our ancestors and have taught them to call on their names. I have leaned close to cemetery stones and cried over strangers' graves. Most of my girlhood crushes were on men who died centuries ago. I frequently ask for help from my mother-in-law who died before I met her. My whole body feels the weight of memory whenever I enter a place that has known a fullness of souls and a wealth of time. I am apt to shake or burst into tears when I touch objects that belonged to my much-loved dead. Every day of my life I'm talking to the spirits of the dead, reading their words, listening to their wisdom, crying and laughing with them. They are with me all the time.

But I've never seen a ghost.

*"Rochester rappings" is a misnomer since the whole thing begins in Hydesville on a rural road just outside of Newark, NY.

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