A Family Ghost Story Revisited

Because Halloween is coming and because I’ve been looking at old family albums, I decided to re-post a story I first published in July, 2010, a month after I started blogging. It concerns the “family ghost story” my great-grandmother used to tell. Except it may have been a “rural legend” once told widely in the midwest. Since the timeframe was the 1880’s, it really doesn’t matter. The story still evokes the mystery and excitement of my childhood Halloweens…Enjoy!

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I heard this from the time I was little, a story told by my great-grandmother, Hannah Shook Outwater. I was ten when she died at the age of 88. Her gift of a hand puppet for my third Christmas was a huge catalyst in sparking my lifelong love of making and telling stories, but that is a tale for another time.

Hannah Outwater in her 20’s

When she was seven, Hannah, the seventh of eight children, rode with her family in a covered wagon from Ohio to Michigan. Her younger brother, Freddy, age two, didn’t survive the trip. They say he was flat on his back in the wagon with fever, but the evening he died, he sat up with a beatific smile and reached out his arm to angels no one else could see.  At least that’s the family legend. When I was young, Freddie’s child-sized fork lay in the silverware drawer.

When they reached Kalamazoo, Hannah’s father, Isiah Shook, rented a farm. Then the incidents began.

Hannah’s older sister was of the age to go courting. The family would hear the wagon drive up bringing her home, open the door and find no one there. Some nights the family heard such a commotion in the barn it sounded like the animals were about to kick it down. When they ran out to investigate, they found the cows and horses asleep and everything quiet. Then there was the reddish stain on the guest room floor they could never scrub out…

You have to imagine my great grandmother pausing to look around the room.  She knew how to build suspense.  It might be halloween – it was certainly winter, with the lights turned low.  Those were the days before the SciFi channel and Freddy Kreuger.  Before CSI and the horrendous headlines that have become all to common.

The old lady would lean forward and speak in a low voice so we would have to lean in too.  “Once we needed to move a big old chest in the cellar.  That’s when we found it.  Mind you, those were the days of dirt cellars, but in the far corner was a single patch of cement about six feet long.”

She would let that sink in, and then say, “We had been there about six months when my father heard the story.  The neighbors said a wealthy horse dealer came through town and spent the night with the people who lived there before you.  No one ever saw him again.  The couple who lived there said he left before dawn.  Funny that they moved away two months later.  We never understood where they got the money to up and go so suddenly.”

Hannah’s family moved not long after. And “No,” she said, they never quite dared to dig and see what was buried under the cement slab.

AFTERWARD

My sister and I and our friends grew up with that story, and after Hannah was gone, my mother told it. Some ten years ago, however, while spending the night in a vacation cabin, I found a stack of American Heritage magazines, and one of them had an article on legends common in rural America a century ago – and there was the family ghost story! Or so I think, because I didn’t have the sense to write down the magazine date, and later attempts to find it again in libraries or used bookstores never panned out.

Was it pure legend?  Was it born of a scandalous crime that was the talk of the midwest in the era before TV and tabloids?  Was it like certain crimes that became the stuff of ballads that are still sung hundreds of years later?

When I first found that copy of American Heritage, I thought it was very important to find out what kind of story it really was – exactly how true.  Now I don’t think it matters.  For me the story will always be true, whether it happened or not.

The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

Path through the Woodland Garden

“For me beauty is the primary proof of the existence of God. Beauty is sublime, transcendent, and fulfilling. It takes us to the very edge of our capacity for knowledge…The world considered without its beauty is a world perceived without its God.” – Thomas Moore

“You must protest, you must protest, it is your diamond duty; ah but in such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty.” – Phil Ochs

James Hillman often railed against psychology’s “medicinal complex.” He looked to Greece and the Renaissance for inspiration as he championed a psychology of soul, image, and eros, in which “the primary value is beauty,” (A Blue Fire). A lack of beauty is pathological, he said, both in the lives of individuals and cultures. I thought of this often during this seemingly unending summer, with its record heat, smoke from another disastrous fire season, and a resurgent pandemic, set against a backdrop of too much traffic, too many angry drivers, and too many miles of billboards and decaying strip malls. For those, and other reasons, in mid-September, we set out for the coast, which we hadn’t visited since 2018.

Begonia Pavillion

Two days before we left, the temperature hit 106, so the 60 degree days alone would have made the trip worthwhile, but there was more than just a preview of fall in Fort Bragg, where we hadn’t stayed before. There were independent restaurants, coffee shops, a marine museum and the Skunk Train terminal, in the “downtown” area along the coastal highway. A few blocks away, wide streets and and quiet neighborhoods invited evening walks in glow of the coastal evening light. But the real surprise and most inspiring feature of the trip was the Mendocino County Botanical Gardens, just a few miles south of Fort Bragg www.gardenbythe sea.org.

We spent portions of two days at the gardens, which was only enough time to begin to explore, but that didn’t really matter. When a place mirrors the landscape of the soul, feeling like home on a deep level, it’s enough to just be there, and rest, and pay attention, letting the sense of presence arise.

“The flowers had the look of flowers that are looked at.” – T.S. Eliot

In the Dahlia Garden

Multiple paths meander through multiple groves, gardens, and open spaces, opening onto new vistas a every turn. Huge old trees bend and twist as if synchronized to the smaller plants that surround the trunks.

I’ve always enjoyed Japanese gardens, which blend the natural world with design and draw us into stillness. Here, there’s a wildness at the center of the garden designs, like an echo of the wildness of the ocean. The result is to draw us into wonder.

Memorial benches border the paths, with small plaques given by families of people who loved or supported or worked on these gardens. What a wonderful tribute that seems as one sits, surrounded by the beauty of the place they helped to create!

“The soul is born in beauty and feeds on beauty, requires beauty for its life.” – James Hillman

It rained the second day we went to the gardens, but everyone there seemed to enjoy it, both those who live on the coast and those, like us, visiting from inland. The clouds and rain added an extra shimmer to the foliage.

These gardens are an inspiring place to visit if you get a chance to visit the Mendocino coast. They brought to mind at least one similar feature near home that I haven’t explored in some time, and must get back to. Tt was also rewarding to pot several of the succulents we brought home. Just a small thing, but nothing that feeds the soul is ever too small.

From Sea to Shining…

One of my favorite photos of our nearest shining sea. Sunset, Bandon, OR, 2013.

A story that Tibetan meditation master, Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche told during a Zoom teaching last year came to mind this Independence Day.

Rinpoche said that when he was young, his passion was to learn ultimate truths. He said he eventually realized that ultimate truths are beyond the grasp of our ordinary, discursive minds, and the question he now asks is, “Is this beneficial?”

Historical truths are more accessible than metaphysical ones, but this July 4, the contention over even fundamental “facts” is central to our national malaise. I remain convinced that for a nation, just as for an individual, a fearless admission of wrongs is a pre-requisite to further efforts to manifest dreams and ideals.

Our national ideals of equality, freedom, and democracy, are now International dreams. So are the forces of fear and greed that feed the rising waves of world-wide authoritarian movements. The dream of democracy will survive, and now would be a good time to pray that nations that currently embody it do as well.

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This seems related – Mary and I were out this morning, and when we got back, it was too hot for a vigorous walk with the dogs, but we took them to the park anyway, sticking as much as possible to the grassy and shady areas. Not many people were out, but at one picnic table, three guitarists with portable amps were playing a stunningly good instrumental version of Dear Mr. Fantasy! It seems like just the song for this Independence Day.

Here’s a nice version of Steve Winwood playing it at Crossroads, 2007.

Normal, anyone?

These days, it’s impossible not to daydream of “getting back to normal,” though it gets complicated the moment you try to figure out what that means. Much of “normal American life” led to our current messes, and some of the least desirable normal things, like mass shootings, have been the first to return to our not-yet, post-pandemic world.

I am profoundly fortunate, with a reclusive temperament and a living situation that allowed me to weather 2020 safely, with a fair amount of residual sanity. Even so, yesterday, I discovered how much I miss some normal things. Mary and I left for an errand near downtown, with nothing more than a piece of toast, so by 10:30, when we were done, we were more than a little ravenous. An impulse led us to Lido’s, on Fair Oaks Boulevard, which has always had outdoor dining on the front porch. Several tables were open by then.

We hadn’t been to a restaurant since the second week of March, 2020, so scrambled eggs, country potatoes, a bowl of fruit, and coffee seemed like the finest breakfast I’d ever had. The good spirts of those dining on the porch were contagious. The downside became apparent after breakfast, when I masked up to go indoors to use the restroom – the place was jammed with maskless people, and I could only reflect that the end of the pandemic is in no way assured!

Stupidity is as normal as genius in this country, and I think we’ve become conditioned, especially after the last four years, to pay closer attention to the former. And yet…

In the afternoon, as I sat on the back porch, two hummingbirds joined the bees in circling and darting through through the apple blossoms.

Cheri Huber, a Zen teacher I met years ago, had a favorite saying: “The quality of your life is determined by the focus of your attention.”

She was right.

Fear in a Handful of Dust

T.S. Eliot, 1934. Public Domain.

And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in handful of dust.
— T.S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,” 1922

For me, the phrase, “fear in a handful of dust” signifies that sense of nameless dread that can arise without an immediate cause. Anyone who hasn’t experienced such a sense of impending doom sometime this past year was not paying attention!

The poem from which the line was taken, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste land, is considered one of the most important early 20th century poems, announcing the ascendency of modernism in poetry – there was little appetite for 19th c. romanticism after the First World War. At the same time, as Eliot made clear in extensive notes, he drew heavily on an ancient legend, that of The Holy Grail, a central image in the Arthurian legends, but with roots stretching back to the Bronze Age.

Like Eliot before him, Joseph Campbell wrote extensively of the Waste Land. The legend revolves around Sacred Kingship, where the health of the land and the health of the sovereign are one. Behind the ailing Arthur is the Fischer King, with a wound that will not heal. The land is waste and can only be healed by the recovery of the Holy Grail. (The Masks of God: Creative Mythology).

Quest for the Grail, Creative Commons.

In Christianized tellings the Grail was the cup of the Last Supper, but in Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Parzival, the version most quoted by Campbell, the Grail is a stone: “Its name is ‘lapis exiles,’ which is one of the terms applied in alchemy to the philosopher’s stone.” The gifts of the Grail are different for each person, corresponding to their deepest desires.

In Wolfram’s telling, to redeem himself and the land, the Grail seeker must ask the right question: “Whom does the Grail serve?” For all my fascination with the Grail legend over the years, I’ve never been able to understand that question. Until maybe last year.

Sheltering in place, cut off from most ordinary activities, there was plenty of time to reflect. The most important reflection was probably, “What is most important?” What matters most to me? What do you say to fear in a handful of dust, or fear in the darkness when you wake up at 3:00 am during a plague year?

At this moment in time, I’m old enough to say I know. For now. Answers change as we change, but answers may not be the main thing. To redeem the Grail what matters most is asking the right question.

At Year’s End

Winter sun and shadow on the back fence

A week or so ago, at noon, I was sitting on the back porch, gazing at the sky. I was dressed warmly for it was 50 degrees and windy, which is cold if you live in a hot climate. Suddenly – and this made no sense – I heard the distinctive jingle of an ice cream truck. Stephen King came to mind, and I imagined a truck full of killer clowns. It has been that kind of year.

King himself has tweeted that nothing he’s written is as scary as 2020 has been. To be precise, he said nothing he’s written “is as frightening as the current administration,” which is to state more clearly what has made America the epicenter of many of the horrors the world has endured this year.

My father was born exactly 100 years ago, on December 31, 1920. As I sat on the porch this afternoon, on another chilly day, I was thankful that he didn’t live to see this year. Then a pleasant memory came to mind. Continue reading

2020 Notes: Survival of…

On Friday, a few days after the CDC recommended that people avoid Thanksgiving travel, someone tweeted a video clip of a crowded terminal at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. Other tweets have confirmed that this is unfolding in many airports.

On the plus side, everyone was wearing a mask. The ceilings were high and there may well have been good ventilation. One man was using hand sanitizer. I’m sure some had purchased non-refundable tickets even before the current coronavirus spike. Most had probably done so before the CDC announcement. But the virus doesn’t care, and many of these travelers were going to be crowded together in terminals and airplanes for hours.

It struck me that this is truly in an evolutionary moment. As in, survival of the fittest. But what is fitness now, in this situation?

Surviving the first wave had much to do with luck – or karma if you wish. We did ok if we weren’t in a nursing home or on a cruise ship. If we weren’t a New York City bus driver. It helped if we were young and healthy, were not homeless, and didn’t have to work in a meat packing plant. It helped to be distant from the first epicenters while scientists worked out aerosol transmission and our current distance and mask protocols.

But now, a year after the first appearance of the virus, when everyone knows the guidelines, what attributes give us the greatest chance of survival? I’m thinking just of western nations for now, for I don’t know much about the cultural dynamics of places like China or Korea. What are the attributes that will keep us alive?

The first thing that comes to mind is compassion, a concern for others, born, at a minimum, of an understanding that we are all in this together – that no one survives by themselves. We wear  a mask, not just for ourselves but for the grocery worker who stocks the shelves with toilet paper. It’s the opposite of the adolescent, “You’re not the boss of me,” concept of freedom which lies close to the core of the dismal failure of the US effort to contain the virus.

In addition to an open heart, it helps to have an open mind, open to evidence and not locked into concepts, blind beliefs, or dogma. A South Dakota nurse recently lamented that some of her patients have died proclaiming that covid is a hoax.

And finally, despite the teachings of “positive psychology,” there seem to be times when pessimism is an asset. A few years ago, I heard a discussion on NPR, of research, including a study by the American Psychological Association, that pessimists may live longer – if we are worried about our health, we may guard it more carefully. “Two of our hunter-gatherer ancestors are caught in a violent storm, but see a dry cave on a ledge above them,” said the narrator. “One of them says, ‘Oh look, a dry cave!’ The other hunter says, ‘I don’t know…there might be a bear inside.’ Which hunter is more likely to live long enough to pass on his genes?”

I find it interesting that two of the western nations that have best contained covid-19, New Zealand and Iceland, are islands, while Hawaii has consistently been at the top of American states in that regard. According to today’s (Nov. 22) New York Times update, they have again been at the lowest level, of 10 or fewer daily infections per 100,000 people over the last week. There’s no way to prove it, but my hunch is that residents of an island know that they’re all in this together more viscerally than we on the mainland can.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, as the pandemic rages out of control and even our best prepared hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed, our public response is irresponsible travel and hoarding toilet paper. Our mythic, “American Exceptionalism” has come to mean exceptionally stupid. I am reminded of the challenge back in the ’60’s as the Vietnam war raged: “America – love it, or leave it.”

It’s easy now to think that leaving, if and when other nations would even have us, is a reasonable survival strategy. And yet that part of me with roots deep in this land, that grew up feeling pride in this nation, can only offer the same response we gave in the ’60’s: “America – change it or lose it.”

The Social Dilemma: A Movie Review.

The Social Dilemma, released on Netflix on September 9, is a comprehensive evaluation of the dark side of social media, by some of the senior engineers who designed the underpinnings of these systems:

What is your history with social media?

I started this blog in the summer of 2010, after attending a seminar presented by the California Writer’s Club. I learned about “clickbait” from the blogger who led the session, who made his living managing eight blogs, and drew 50,000 – 80,000 hits a month. He used Twitter and Facebook to extend the reach of his blogs.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to hustle a profit from blogging, but I did take to social media to further publicize each post. For five years, I used it for little else.That changed in 2015, during the presidential election season and has only accelerated during our nation’s and the world’s accelerating disasters.

When I worked in the tech industry, we constantly had to think in terms of “cost vs. benefit.” By the start of this year, the benefit I received from social media was maybe ten percent – about the percentage of non-political and non-end-is-near posts my newsfeed provides. Continue reading