Saturday, January 30, 2021

Texas notes: I Don’t Believe in Ghosts

"Unhappy Ghosts Crossing the Styx" by John Doyle (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Rationalists are challenged by accounts of the irrational, like today's post by Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey. I think I'll shut up—an underutilized skill set of mine—and let her tell her story. Life is a mirrored disco ball, and not every facet has to reflect you, or me.
    BMX biker boys wowed us with their tricks at Fountain Square in downtown Evanston during endless summer days. We’d bike the few miles from our north Chicago neighborhood to the charming suburban town square to watch them pop wheelies and do loop de loops in the air. It seemed they were able to fly. We were smitten. Sometimes they’d flirt and we’d swoon. We’d finally tear ourselves away and race down Asbury trying to get home by curfew, and pedaled extra fast when passing the haunted house.
     It was a sleek white modern structure with no windows that we could see, and an abstract twisted humanlike sculpture on the front porch that scared us with its strangeness. The building that just didn’t look like a house seemed to have been dropped from Miami or somewhere else far away, cold and unfeeling. It did not fit in amongst the old rambling wood framed homes with wraparound porches set back on huge yards peppered with stately ancient oak trees. We decided ghosts lived there.
     One day, many years later, a friend of a friend asked me to dog sit for her Labrador Retrievers on that same block. The dogs and I ran around loving each other like Kermie and Miss Piggy. We ran through fields and took day trips to Lake Michigan. We’d wear ourselves out and then fall into heavy sleeps that prepared us to do it all again the next day.
     One night I left the pups and went to a meditation event at the local yoga studio. My friend offered me a ride home on his bicycle, and I hopped on. When we got back to the house we lay in the grass, stargazed and told each other stories until we got sleepy. He biked off and I went inside.
     After walking the dogs I wanted to spend extra time with the puppy Ella, a golden beauty. She would soon be locked into her own room to sleep, as she was prone to eating sideboards and whatever else struck her fancy when no one was looking. The old guy, Beau— a big chocolate lab— would get to come upstairs and sleep on the floor of the bedroom with me.
     We were in the TV room at the front of the house, and I was petting the dogs and half watching a show. Suddenly, Ella ran out of the room into the living room and started barking furiously up into the chimney of the fireplace. I figured it was a bird or squirrel and coaxed her back in with Beau and me.
     Just then I heard footsteps upstairs. Not “are those footsteps?” but clear, loud steps that sounded like they came from leather shoes worn by a man. I looked out the window to see if maybe I was hearing something from the neighbor’s place; after all, these old wooden houses were sure to carry sound. But no, that was not it. The house next door was hundreds of feet across a lawn and there was no way I could hear steps from that house.
     The footsteps stopped, then started up again. Ella barked. Beau’s ears perked up. I froze. I called a friend and told him what was happening. He was concerned and offered to come over, but he lived all the way in Hyde Park. Besides, the footsteps had stopped and of course they were just my imagination (I told myself).
     I was tired. I put Ella into her room and Beau and I went upstairs to sleep. I’d almost forgotten about the footsteps by then.
     In the middle of the night I woke up. For some reason I was sitting straight up in bed, and Beau was standing on the bed— very odd since he never got up on the bed at all. He was staring at me, and it seemed he was trying to tell me something.
     I looked over to my left. There they were. A translucent, man and woman in old fashioned ecru and sepia tinged sleeping gowns. They were petite in stature and their faces were serious, stoic. They just looked at me calmly, and I looked at them, paralyzed. After a few moments they turned and left the room. The walked out of the door and down the hall. Somehow I knew they’d be heading up to the attic, with an entrance tucked up into the hallway ceiling.
     I went back to sleep. The next morning I stripped the bed and brought the sheets down to the basement along with the towels I’d used during my stay. The owners of the house were coming home so it was time to clean up and clear out. Ella came into the basement with me and barked into every corner. I felt unnerved but went through the motions. I noticed what looked like a tree trunk in the center of the old damp concrete basement. I realized that a main support beam was, in fact, a tree trunk that had not been sanded down. It was beautiful and also added to the feeling of rawness of the innards of this ancient house.
     I decided I’d go to a Tai Chi class that day, taught at a local church by a man from China. He was renowned in the are for his masterful skills, and a sought out teacher. When I got there he welcomed me, as he does all new students, and I started my practice. When we finished he told me that the class meets for two hours more, in the library of the church, to study Taoist philosophy and the roots of Tai Chi. I joined them.
     I felt like I was in the twilight zone when I realized the topic of the day. Ghosts. They talked of ghosts like they were real and shared teachings of why ghosts exist and how to help them if they appear to you. Apparently they are there because they are not resting, and you can welcome them and perhaps they will feel free to leave this realm once they feel appeased.
     I’m not saying I believe any of this; that was just what was being taught that day, and the synchronicity was incredible.
     A few months later my friend— the one who'd introduced me to Beau and Ella’s humans— told me that her 8 year old son had informed her “I will never sleep at ‘Johnny’s’ house again. This boy was friends with the kid who lived in my ghost house. He told his mom “I hear a woman and man talking all night up in the crawl space and they keep me up.”
     Years later I saw the couple who live in that house. I said to her “there’s something I want to tell you but I have been afraid to since I thought you'd think I was crazy.” “Oh,” she said. “You saw the ghosts. I’ve never seen them but they show themselves to visitors.”


  1. Because I don't believe in ghosts -- i.e. I've never seen (or heard) a ghost even while drunk or drugged -- I hesitate to comment: how do I say something meaningful that will not be taken as derisory or patronizing? I'm reminded of a ghost story by Henry James that he regarded as a "potboiler," but I enjoyed more than some of his more cerebral, realistic and acclaimed works. In that sense, I will say that I found your description of your experience with ghostly apparitions enchanting and convincing. But I don't hanker to replicate your experience.


  2. Due to much experimentation with psycedelic substances and eastern philosophy I have a willingness to be open to the notion that there are many things we aren't aware of that may be part of the world around us. Much like how we only see the visible spectrum and hear sound within our audible range.

    We have developed devices that make it clear these things exist. So far only our brain reveals paranormal phenomenon. So I am skeptical of these types of claims. Still I've "felt" the presence of spirits and been visited in dreams by dead friends and relatives. But I have never seen with my eyes while conciuos anything to indicate ghosts exist. Still it's possible.

  3. Thanks for reading- and I’ll look up the James piece.

    1. It is probably his novella "The Turn of the Screw" a short (for him) masterpiece, noted for the ambiguity of the plot -- either two evil ghosts exist in fact or only in the fevered imagination of the children's governess. It's been filmed several times and also made into a spooky opera by Benjamin Britten.


  4. I really should follow Neil's lead and shut up, but what's the fun in that?

    I'm usually just inclined to wonder why the ghosts don't outfit themselves in cozy cardigans and corduroy pants if they're going to be showing themselves to visitors. Obtaining them from wherever they're getting the old-fashioned sleeping gowns.

    FME, I'm genuinely curious. Is being visited in dreams by dead friends and relatives somehow different from dreaming about living friends and relatives?

    1. I think not. And sometimes it's hard to be sure wether you are asleep and dreaming or awake and having a fully conciuos experience. I suggest that the appearance of apparitions mostly occur when people are alone. Thus rarely shared. So there's that .Though on trips shared hallucinations were pretty common . Honestly I have no idea if ghosts exist. However unlikely , it's possible.


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