Monday, July 31, 2006

The Ghosts of Summer

"The foolish puppy, too . . . he heard the secret whisper all over the house: 'There must be more money'!"
--D.H. Lawrence

You've heard the story before. A new version of a family starts a new life in a new home with new opportunities and the chance, that slim chance, that life's promises may just turn out to be more than a foolish dream.

But they get in the house and find themselves alienated in a strange new world, battling social isolation and something worse, things that go bump in the night. This new life is haunted, and the new family doesn't stand a chance until it reckons with its ghosts. Only by facing some past wrongdoing can they find peace and hope again, and the road ahead is a journey into fear of dangers known and unknown, rational in part but mostly irrational.

I found myself thinking about this archetype of the ghost story as I picked the pieces of broken glass out of my car's front seat a couple of weeks ago. It was the most mundane of events. Some kid, I'd guess, simply called somebody's bluff on a dare and bashed my window in with something like a baseball bat, a change of pace and considerably more exciting than hitting mailboxes.

But it was more than that for me. That bat provided a bold exclamation mark to punctuate my haunted summer.

Of course, my first thought was why now? After 5 years living in a skid row duplex in one of the most neglected areas of the city and 2 years in an apartment in the poorest neighborhood in my county, I'm finally living in what might be called a modestly nice neighborhood, and this happens the first month out. I couldn't help but feel a little paranoia. Maybe it is the local kids picking on the renters. For all I know, it could be a civically-sponsored activity in this neck of the woods.

Still, a punctuation mark is just a punctuation mark. Though August is my most financially strapped month, when I coast on the remainder of my end of the year buyout of my contract that allows for something out of the ordinary in the early summer, like a couple of day's vacation somewhere, I've managed my money okay this year. I can cover the window. No, it's not the exclamation point that this is about; it's the sentence that preceded it haunting me.

Yes, the townhouse my new wife and I are renting has its share of bumps in the night, even more since the broken window. There's the groaning pipes in the basement, and the wooden floors that creak a ventriloquism of echoes throughout our three floors of new nooks and crannies. There's the way this year's cicadas thrum against the screens like someone's trying to claw their way in at about 3 in the morning. And there's the phantoms our new puppy likes to bark at high in dark corners, just to make sure we don't ever feel entirely at ease.

Those things are just the subtle poetics of new surroundings. The real ghosts came with my daughter moving away to a new town with her mother and a new stepfather, and that basement I hadn't tackled since our divorce that I had to empty before the house was sold.

That basement to the home my daughter's mother and I bought 12 years ago held most of the ghosts of my past together in one place. All of my childhood treasures I've had no room to store had been left behind there. I had to face them again to either fill my first post-divorce basement or kick 'em to the curb. It was a basement full of remnants of my past careers--the marionettes I played with intently for about a month when I was 10, the magic tricks I used to practice when one of my favorite TV shows was the late Bill Bixby's The Magician, and the movie-making equipment I shot and edited 3-minute horror films on as a child of freshly divorced parents from the age of 10-12. And then there were the almost two decades of relics from my various careers as an adult--reams of student papers and hand-outs, autographs and reminders of interviews and correspondence with musicians and authors, including many who are gone, like Randy Shilts, William S. Burroughs and a disappearing generation of Kansas City blues artists like Sonny Kenner. Kenner's voice always reminds me, "You can say what you will about Boss Pendergast, but when the mob ran this town, nobody went hungry."

And there's the letters written to me by my Swedish grandmother, forlorn correspondence from a woman who gave up her one room schoolhouse job to marry a refinery worker. He gave her four beautiful children but none of the prestige and fulfillment she'd once tasted. And there were the pictures of my Southern grandmother in her youth, a lithe, elegant young woman who married another young man looked down upon by her family. Though he was a forensic researcher, he also played saxophone in a swing band and brought carny people home for dinner. The stories suggest he lived each moment of his too short life like he knew he better. He died of a heart attack in the early morning hours of July 5th, 1944.

And there's my daughter's room, empty now, the only window she has ever dreamed out of shining light on nothing but four blue walls I once painted. The only closet to store her personal treasures is bare. I almost couldn't breathe standing in that room one last time.

After a couple of months of searching for just the right house, I remember how both her mother and I knew we found it the minute we walked into that homey front room with the vaulted ceilings. Now, the same room simply haunts me with my own choices. If my daughter's 200 miles from me living with a man I don't really know in a home I've yet to see, am I simply lying to myself to say I've done the best I can?

Yeah, I'm wallowing in it, but something tells me that's what I've got to do right now, at least until I've found some way to reckon all of this with my new reality.

Truth be told, I've got a pretty perfect new life with a woman who understands me better than I understand myself much of the time. And my daughter and I, though we won't see each other on a daily basis, may grow closer than ever in the coming months. She calls me and fills me in on her new life, and just earlier tonight, we IM'd for about an hour about everything and nothing in a way we rarely did when we saw each other all the time. And that new puppy, when she's not yapping at phantoms, is living proof of unconditional love.

I'm a great believer in reckoning because the ghosts just cry louder until they're heard. Ignoring them has cost me my health in the past, and I've tried to learn from that.

I think it's why the Southern gothic--starting with Edgar Allan Poe and extending through, say, everyone from Dorothy Allison to Drive By Truckers to Cee-Lo and David Banner--haunts our culture. Ghosts haunt American culture, and they start with an unreckoned legacy of 400 years of racism and economic inequality.

That's the spiritual reason why I am so thankful for Julian Edney's recent commentary in the Baltimore Chronicle "How Inequality Kills"--
The article makes the point that "more than any physical cause of death like cigarettes, obesity, accidents, alcohol or pollution, a more potent killer is the shape of the society we live in." This brief commentary sums up 10 years of research, including numerous recent articles and a New Press book called "The Society and Population Health Reader" that all point to the same conclusion. If you control for variables, the most devastating killer in our society is the fact of economic inequality itself. Everything else is symptomatic.

As I write this, I'm also haunted by the death of Murray Bookchin Sunday morning. I never knew about him when he was alive, but his obituary tells me that he spent the better part of his 85 years trying to convince the world that the greatest danger posed by our economic system is ecological devastation. The blind momentum of this runaway train has no other policy but that of a scorched Earth. Bookchin's ghost cries out for someone to dig deep enough into the skeletons in Al Gore's closet to get at the inconvenient truths he wouldn't address as President any more than he did when he successfully pushed his boss to gut social spending on the poor.

I believe in ghosts and ghost stories because I believe we are haunted for a reason. The only way I could get through that basement and salvage what was valuable was for me to confront all of it, experience the inevitable pain and make the best choices for tomorrow I know how to make. The past is every bit as real and present as all of those basement boxes of garbage that yield a handful of treasures and a potential reservoir of wisdom. And our society's past is every bit as real and present as the accumulated wealth of a handful of people at the expense of generations of misery for millions in our society as well as all of those we've bullied and exploited around the world.

One one level, reckoning with ghosts is a way to remind myself how lucky I am. I get to love the best people I've ever known and share my life with them, even if it's over the gap of a couple of hundred miles or so. Hell, some of my most intimate relationships span 1000 miles or more, so this thing with my daughter ought to be a cinch, huh? Still, I'm not making light. Pain is pain, and each day's is as much as we can handle.... when it's not too much altogether.

And to get a baseball bat through the window when I've got the spare change to afford it? It may call up the spectre of all those times when that hurt worse. Plenty of times that would have been all that was needed to leave me without food for the month, times that saw me hocking my record collection and CDs and every halfway nice guitar I ever owned.... but it's also a reminder that where I am is at least not there, right now (knock on wood).

But somewhere else, someone else is taking a baseball bat to the head tonight--like another ghost of Kansas City, Steve Harvey, beaten to death for being black in 1980 and playing his sax alone in a metro park at night.

Somewhere else, someone else is losing her family to far more powerful American munitions than our bats, and she may be blamed for a lot of things--being the wrong religion in the wrong place at the wrong time maybe--but her main crime is 9 times out of 10 going to be the same, she's poor and her life is cheap.

Whether someone is rich one day and poor the next or the other way around, the inequality that eats at us in the form of every kind of disease, war and social neglect is a demon long in the making and bigger than any individual. The only way we can ever exorcise such a threat is to face it honestly and, if at all possible, collectively. We learn that from ghost stories.

The alternative is too dreadful to even begin to do it justice, but there's a story that we read in some of my classes that gets at it. It's a little ghost story called "The Seventh Man" by the popular Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. It ends--

"They tell us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself; but I don't believe that....Oh, the fear is there, all right. It comes to us in many different forms, at different times, and overwhelms us. But the most frightening thing we can do at such times is to turn our backs on it, to close our eyes. For then we take the most precious thing inside us and surrender it to something else."

In this case, that something else is the weight of the past unreckoned, its hungry maw only growing until we face it or get eaten alive.