In Catholicism, ghosts are part of the Liturgy. We are taught that the holy trinity is the Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost. Combine that with Irish ancestry and you have someone fairly willing to acknowledge the unseen, the invisible. In religious practice, it is meant to drive home the premise that the eyes of God are on us always. It is an imperative, I think, in order to get one to believe in God, that he be invisible. One of the odd ironies of Christianity is that while it forbids “pagan” worship and idolatry, it furnishes a host of spooks and idols to worship in its own practice.
The spirit world is a big deal in other cultures and faiths as well. I spent part of 1987 in Haiti, where people practice voodoo and Catholicism in equal measure. In Native American culture, the Spirits surround us and manifest themselves in nature. The sun is often ceded the entity of the almighty, with water and rain and wind, and hail and thunder also occupying significant spiritual primacies as well. The First Nation people don’t curse floods or hurricanes, fires, dust storms or God. To them, they are all the same thing.
Many of us believe that our dead and departed relatives, or friends or lovers, send us missives from beyond. The presence of birds, objects, music– you name it– we will attach great spiritual significance to as a function of grief and wish fulfillment. Our desire to maintain some tether to something or someone we deem precious, encodes all manner of cognitive associative images attached to the object of our longing. The rational part of me KNOWS this.
The Artist doesn’t. He lives with the unseen–the invisible.
I’m always ready to believe that the past, the dead, and history possess a memory and they walk with us. Fuck, I believe the birds speak to me. I’ve heard it said, behind my back, when the person thinks I’m out of earshot, “You know, I hear he’s not. . .all there. He isn’t quite right.” More than once I’ve heard this. Of course I hear it from people who wear ties and get up at six in the morning. You tell me who is nuts.
At least once a week I wake up sitting up, on the side of my bed and I’ve been having a conversation. My wife and kids tell me I hold whole conversations in my sleep. A couple months after my father died, I had a dream so viscerally real, it shook me up. I dreamt that me , my dad and my pal, Nick were standing in the shallow surf in Miami Beach drinking martinis with our linen pants rolled up. I remembered thinking we were drinking the good shit because the gin had the juniper sting in it that the better stuff has–Bombay, Tanqueray—and I swear the tops of my feet were a little sunburned.
Longing and imagination are powerful things. Combined they project us fitfully into the reality we search out–the narrative we wish to be real. Still, I am one of those who puts some faith, rational or not, in the idea of the Spirit world; that maybe the dead and the past walk with us through this world; that 100 years ago is happening, still, at the same time this current moment is, just in a different world. It is very hard for me to articulate or defend.
I realize I sound like a full-on drool case when I try to explain this, but I come by it honestly. As a kid, I would see smoke or steam and think it was ghosts. My mother enjoyed my imagination and she indulged it, and so I went to great lengths to tell her elaborate stories and would insist to her they were all true.
You see, the Irish believe in all manner of supernatural, happy horseshit–faeries, Jenny Linds, bog-trotting goblins and leprechauns. The latter, I suspect, to explain midgets (The Little People”) when some not-terribly-bright Mick got snot-flying drunk. More likely, we believe these things because life on this slimy rock full of drunks is rainy, cold, more-often-than-not impoverished and mercilessly unfair and short. The faeries, leprechauns and red-headed nymphs? Well. . .they give us something to smile about.
Even now when I see steam rise from the ground or the Northern lights, I think of these as missives from the other world, what Haitians referred to as “The Gray World.”
A year ago, I heard something funny and immediately picked up the phone to call my father.
My father died September 17th 1998.
I put the phone down and went to pieces.
For him. For my friends no longer with me. For the awful and real fact that we get one life and it is as tenuous, as elusive, as fragile and fleeting as the end of a kite string.