I find the supernatural fascinating, but the Holy Grail is a ghost. Getting the creeps is nothing compared to evidence of a real human person appearing in the world after death.
I don’t believe in ghosts. My closest friends can tell me their experiences and I love to hear them, but I’m thinking, You were tired, or You were dreaming, not You actually saw a ghost. Noises are the best. It’s easy to dismiss a noise without finding its source. You heard creaking in an old house at night? Wow, let me call Zelda Rubinstein.
When I moved to the UK from Canada I thought it was a great opportunity. Despite films’ attempts to show “old Indian burial grounds” as the most haunted of places, I can’t say I’ve ever encountered that phenomenon. And as much as there are thousands of years of human occupation in North America, most of that time has been lightly populated, so it’s difficult to say There have always been people in exactly this location. Contrast the UK. Any given space in Edinburgh or London has been crowded with thousands of people living and dying for a very long time. Not passing over that land, but living in that actual building. So many spirits attached to those rooms. Statistically, it was a good shot. If I was going to see a ghost anywhere I’d see one there, right?
I lived in houses that were older than Canada and saw nothing supernatural. I wandered places where the bones of hundreds were stashed and they were silent. One might say dead. Despite the population, despite the age of things, reports of actual ghosts were no more numerous than in the NA. And I’d say the reports sounded about as believable on either continent. Which is to say they were bullshit everywhere.
There was just once I found a place I’d believe was haunted. Driving in Tyrone after visiting family I went to find the Cooneen ghost house. I got a little lost, and I passed it without realizing I was passing the driveway. Down a corridor between the trees I saw it for a moment looking back at me. And it did look. It saw me. It had all the presence and personality of Leatherface.
A friend shared a post with me on Facebook the other day, an exaggeration of the creative writing process meant to elicit a laugh and nothing else. I immediately tore the thing to shreds. Not in a reply–it was quicker than that. In the moment I’d finished reading it, I was already thinking, This is wrong in a large number of ways and it teaches me nothing. I’m not laughing.
Then, Oh crap. I’ve lost my sense of humour.
I knew it was supposed to be funny and nothing else. I knew it wasn’t supposed to teach me anything and it wasn’t meant to be entirely correct. It had been designed to refer to generalizations and poke fun at something that’s usually serious. That’s what a joke does. What the hell was wrong with me that I couldn’t even laugh?
I didn’t reply to my friend that day. I didn’t trust myself to reply. The next day I read the post again, and hey! It was funny. It hadn’t changed, but I had. I hadn’t lost my sense of humour. I was just having a bad day, a day when I couldn’t see my life for the days in it.
We’re rarely the same people from day to day. Every part of living involves processing and reacting to the world around us, and that reaction can change, sometimes a bit, sometimes a lot, depending on how much sleep we’ve had, what stress we’re under, even if the caffeine flowed a little too well that morning. Another popular Facebook post says “If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best.” Seriously, I can only just handle me at my worst. What should I expect from my friends?
It’s normal to choose favourites for everything the way you’d choose your favourite ice cream, even if it’s effectively irrelevant. Favourite colour, favourite season, favourite planet. The latter, of course, is Pluto. A mysterious, frozen landscape spinning so far from here even the centre of the universe seems closer (but that is wrong, for the record.)
In 2006 the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a collection of stuffy jerks who probably don’t even like ice cream, suddenly announced that Pluto is not a planet. Why? Apart from the stuffy jerk thing, the truth is “a planet” had not been properly defined before this. I guess for the first few thousand years of stargazing it seemed obvious enough to say “big spherical thing spinning around a star” without writing that down.
So Pluto was no longer a planet, specifically because it hadn’t cleared its orbit of debris. It was a dwarf planet, which sounded a lot to me like the IAU’s way of saying “Okay guys, we know you’re going to hate this, so we’re going to keep planet in its designation anyway, because we’re tired of never being invited to parties, and we do like ice cream a little bit, well, we like frozen yogurt, that’s nearly the same thing.” And the kerfuffle settled for a decade.
This week two astronomers have announced a new ninth planet far, far beyond Pluto, at a distance of 200 to 1200 AUs (1 AU = the distance from Earth to the sun) compared to Pluto’s puny 40 AUs. Astronomers have been announcing a possible Planet X for most of my lifetime, but this time it’s more or less confirmed. And it’s exciting. Very exciting. I should be over the moon (ha!) but I find myself irrationally resistant to the hype. One of the astronomers who found this new planet is the very same who made the discovery that led to Pluto’s reclassification as a dwarf planet. He’s even quoted as saying, “Killing Pluto was fun.”
It’s normal to feel defensive on behalf of a frozen ball of dirt 6 billion kilometres away, right?
Ma’at was both a concept and a goddess in ancient Egypt. Truth, order, balance, and morality, she stood on Ra’s boat that carried the sun through the sky. In the underworld she weighed your heart against an ostrich feather in a test for eternal life. If you failed, your heart was thrown into a lake of fire or devoured by a crocodile-cat-hippopotamus monster. Good times.
As a goddess Ma’at’s counterpart was Thoth, the mediator, but as a concept she also had a counterpart: Isfet. Isfet as a concept means chaos and injustice, but she too was also a goddess who had to be replaced by Ma’at before the world was born.
Duality seems to have great importance in every human mythology, from yin and yang to angels and demons. We like to simplify our desires and hates into opposing creatures, as if we can balance them on either side of a teeter-totter and watch them play.
Studies have shown a link between mental and physical exhaustion that means being mentally burned out causes you to physically burn out more quickly. Despite that your heart and muscles could continue, your brain convinces them to give up when it’s already mentally ready for a break. Your perception of how much effort is involved is more important than the straightforward reality of how much you could actually physically accomplish.
All of this shines an uncomfortable light on the squishy mutability of the divide between physical reality and mental perception. By that I mean: What divide? Where? Each of us is stuck here looking out from between our own ears, and our reality is made up of what we believe we perceive. If we believe we’re tired, we can’t continue. If we believe we’re in love, we’ll do ridiculous things and be happy about it. If we hold our nose, bad milk tastes like nothing at all. If our reality is our everything, and our reality is an unreliable, subjective thing, reality is equally unreliable except as a philosophical idea.
We have a particular literary term for when a fictional character demonstrates the same thing. As we are all heroes in our own lives, so we are all unreliable narrators, too.
One of the most obvious and most difficult to remember truths about living in human society is that every other person in the world has an intelligence and interior thought space as elaborate as your own. Every time you feel no one can be as daydreamy, as crazy, as complicated as you, you’re wrong. They are.
Or they aren’t and you’re the only creature in the world with the capacity for real doubt, real guilt, real examination of everything you do, good or bad. An extension of Solipsism, the belief that only your own mind is sure to exist. One soul among robots. The only visitor at Disneyland.
Which is worse? Being no more or less important or interesting than anyone else, with enormous capacity for helping each other (yet you don’t, not like you could) and equally enormous capacity for destroying each other which you likely do on a regular basis without realizing? Or, alternatively, being utterly alone in this place with no chance whatsoever of empathy or connecting with another living being because they’re all automatons and you’re the only one with a true mind?
I have no idea.
“She drives mortals to madness with her airy phantoms
As she appears in weird shapes and forms
Now plain to the eye, now shadowy, now shining in the darkness–”
In an Orphic hymn Melinoe was the daughter of Persephone and Zeus, another product of Zeus’s habit of raping people while disguised. Melinoe was born near an underworld river and is the bringer of nightmares and madness. She is sometimes described as the goddess of ghosts.
In university I began experiencing night terrors. These are not nightmares. They happen at a different stage of sleep and the result is profoundly different. We’ve all woken from nightmares, frightened and miserable. Waking from a night terror is like being struck by lightning. You are thrust violently awake, your heart rate charging to 170bpm. You try to stand up, scream, and lash out against the terror. I’ve broken bedside lamps and woken whole households.
Sleep is common and necessary yet a slippery thing to control. I was at a loss how to fix myself and stop these terrors. I certainly didn’t want to be drugged. Then someone decided a ghost had latched on to me and I needed to shake it. They suggested placing a dish of muratic acid in my bedroom because the ghost wouldn’t like it and would leave me alone. I’m a skeptic. This was ridiculous. But what could it hurt to try?
It worked. Or, my night terrors became much less frequent for some other reason when I did this. Now they’re very rare, though sometimes they creep back for a night or two. Sometimes it feels like I go elsewhere when I’m asleep, some blackened underworld, and on waking I’m crawling and clutching my way out of it, desperate to escape and forget. I learned about Melinoe recently, and though I’m still a skeptic I had a moment of understanding more aligned with those dark dreams than anything in this bright and logical world.