THE GHOULS OF OCTOBER ARE practice runs for December when our ghosts really make their presence felt. By presence though, I mean absence. December can hurt more than other months. Repeated rituals permit a magical thinking. We say, last (or last, last, last) year, at this time, our dead were still here.
The natural world quiets in winter but rather than follow its cue, we stuff the final months of the year with merriment, a raucous party pace of debauched expenditures that teeter on blind denial. If we stay busy, sugared, or cheery enough, we might forget this is the season of the dead. Good luck with that. Denying death is about as effective as denying climate change. And nearly as destructive.
Outside of Dickens’ tired old, workhorse, A Christmas Carol, we’ve lost the tradition of telling holiday ghost stories. This loss marks a larger problem. We want growth without decay, light without dark, joy without grief, life without death. We set ourselves up for suffering and pain that can manifest as anger, fear, and greed. What if we just agreed to keep our dead as close as they actually are?
Ghost stories get supplanted by horror stories and we start to believe terrible things about death, decay and the dark. We trash those three regal Ds required for regeneration. The older I get, the more beloved dead I collect, the more flummoxed I am by the conflation of ghosts with horror. What’s so horrible about the dead? Some of my favorite people, animals, and trees are dead.
I grew up with an idea that my dead would float up and away from planet Earth, levitate like astronauts to a removed, sky-based heaven, full of “good” people, as if the mean girls of middle school stood guard at the pearly gates making cruel judgments. Would my alcoholic, wild, shy, tortured but kind father be permitted entry? Probably not, but even if he was, what a gut punch of loneliness to lose someone and then lose them again behind the velvet rope of an exclusive club in the sky. I shudder to imagine death as exile rather than integration. A removed heaven, like some deluxe apartment in the sky, all but condones environmentally-destructive practices as well, as if the earth is less than perfect and deserves our waste and abuse; as if our carelessness doesn’t matter since we will fly away to a place that somehow improves upon trees, leaves, funguses, and sloths; as if the first law of thermodynamics—no matter is ever created or destroyed—isn’t the most glorious psalm sung in every forest, beach, mountain, and town.
We want growth without decay, light without dark, joy without grief, life without death.
Luckily, though, it is. No one’s going anywhere. Everything is forever. The dead are with us, inside of us. They are us. While I’m in no hurry to get to the end of my life, I’m grateful that these minerals I’ve borrowed to make my body, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and magnesium, will one day be returned to the dirt to become something else on earth. Everywhere a cemetery. Everywhere sacred ground.
Let’s reanimate the holiday ghost story tradition, as a way to soften our grief and to keep our dead present.
Years ago, at the University of Vermont, Professor Roxanne Lin taught a course called, Family Values. The syllabus included only four authors: Mary Wollstonecraft, Wollstonecraft’s husband William Godwin, their daughter Mary Shelley and, Mary’s partner Percy Bysshe Shelley. The course made it plain to me: to have family is to be haunted; to love language is to love the dead. Wollstonecraft died soon after giving birth to Mary Shelley, though death did not sever their connection. Shelley went often to her mother’s grave to read, entangling life, death, and language. Professor Lin’s class was the first time I’d read Frankenstein and, like many other first-time readers, I was surprised that things I thought I knew about Shelley’s creature, were wrong. He was not mute. He was not ignorant. He was not green. He was not even a monster. But he was, most gloriously, made up from various parts of different dead people, most prominently, the ideas and words of Shelley’s parents.
The identification I feel with Shelley’s creature is deep. As a reader and lover of language, I am a butcher’s chart of influences. This flank here is where I’m made from the words of Toni Morrison. Here you’ll find the Ursula K. LeGuin in me. This part of my back contains the music of One Direction, (Not dead! just disbanded), Georges Moustaki, and Nina Simone. Here is Borges, Butler, Brontë, Baldwin, Kawabata, and Sebald. And here, in my heart, are three chapters from an unwritten book, a novel started by my dad and never finished, pages I found in his desk drawer three days after he died.
All these stories are ghost stories, not because they are frightening, but because they haunt me in wonderful ways. I use their words to reconstitute and reanimate the dead. I draw my children close and whisper, “On a dark and stormy night,” and the dead are with me, present in the same twenty-six letters Shelley used to write Frankenstein, my dad used in his unfinished book, the same twenty-six letters I use here. These minerals that make us all: letters, words, stories, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and magnesium.
Lord Byron told his friends Percy and Mary Shelley, “We will each write a ghost story.” Like it or not, it’s true. We will each write a ghost story. But our ghost stories do not have to be scary or sad. They need not be dark or stormy. Maybe your ghost story looks like a garden planted each year or a cookie recipe passed down. The Vietnamese monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh, told one of my favorite ghost stories. It’s about a dead leaf. Hạnh says of the leaf, “I saw that it was not really dead, but that it was merging with the moist soil in order to appear on the tree the following spring in another form. I smiled at the leaf and said, ‘You are pretending.’ Everything is pretending to be born and pretending to die.” Thích Nhất Hạnh died this year. Thích Nhất Hạnh merged with the soil. Next spring, I will look for him in the trees and the leaves, the first bits of green, in the ghost stories I tell.