“We meet them at the doorway, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.”
We all have our ghosts. I don’t mean transparent, floating figures who wooooo and moan and thread through the branches of the bare trees outside the window. More like Longfellow’s ghosts - a sensed presence. A feeling that something unseen, something lost, is with us.
Sometimes the feeling is fleeting — glimpsing a man on the street who looks like your father. Seeing your mother’s face in the mirror when you brush your teeth. Almost always this presence is not planned, not sought. It is sudden and surprising and not necessarily frightening. But the spirits come, as Rae Armantrout says in Unbidden,
The ghosts swarm.
They speak as one
loves you. Each
has left something
Spirits have been on my mind the past couple of weeks as I prepared for my family to visit for the holidays. How badly I wanted the spirit of my mother at our gathering. Her recipe for lasagna. The family’s favorite asparagus hors d’oeuvres. Her tiny pecan nut cookies. All labor intensive, involving many steps. All things she did every holiday that we took for granted. But with everyone happily eating and talking and making merry on Saturday, I felt her with us.
I also reread/listened to A Christmas Carol, something I do every year. As a child, my father would read parts of it aloud. As a teacher, the novella was a part of our eighth grade curriculum for years. And I have enjoyed most of the film adaptations, each for different reasons. George C. Scott, in a television version from 1984, best shows the growing turmoil in Scrooge. Patrick Stewart is, well, Patrick Stewart, and particularly wonderful as the transformed Scrooge. The Muppets hold a dear place…they are Muppets, no other reason needed. And Alistair Sim was the first film Scrooge I saw, so that one has nostalgia in its corner. We even watched the new musical version with Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell, and though I didn’t care much for the music, the reimagining of the story was clever. Though it is a fable, a morality tale, a simple ghost story, in some respects, it is always relatable.
In Dickens’s story, Jacob Marley tells Scrooge, when asked about his chain, that Scrooge carries his own. Marley, being dead seven years, has a constant burden, but Scrooge “has labored on it since. It is a ponderous chain.” Some days I feel that weight around me, dragging behind me. Not made of lockboxes and bank notes, but of regret or guilt or fear.
And when Scrooge protests that he was always a good man of business, the Ghost of Christmas Present proclaims, “Mankind was your business.” And I wonder if I do enough for others, if I make mankind my business as often or as well as I should. (And then I feel the weight of that chain again…)
The Dickensian spirits came to teach lessons. To show the errors of a life that can lead to an unhappy end. Their main purpose was salvation, providing a second chance to change the future. The may-bes and could-bes and might-bes, the decisions and actions that haunt every person, every day.
But, when I feel the presence of those I have lost, it never feels like a lesson or a scolding. It is more a comfort, a reminder of love I have already received and still feel, of where and who I come from. Not the weight of a chain, but the security of a tether. Not scenes of mistakes I cannot correct, but ones of ordinary joy and forgiveness.
Not everyone is haunted by spirits of love. Not everyone greets the opportunity to gather with family as something affirming. I understand and appreciate that I am lucky that my ghosts are benevolent, and I am grateful for that. And, until I am a spirit myself, I will endeavor to be kind, to be grateful, to be giving, to keep the spirit of love (not only Christmas) as well as I can.
God bless us, every one.
If you would like to use this little meditation as a writing prompt, try one of the following:
Choose a place or a person that you would haunt if you were a spirit. Your haunting could be protective and comforting, it could be instructive (as Dickens’s ghost), or it could be malevolent (providing some sort of payback or revenge.) Then describe a typical 24 hours of your haunting time. Use as many physical details of place or appearance as you can.
Think of a scene from your present that Dickens’s ghost might show you and who would be talking—co-workers, family members, past partners, etc. Write a scene of dialogue in two ways, one that would be painful to see/overhear (as with Scrooge) and one that would be affirming or positively delightful.
(Image is my own. Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, 2022)
And the reason I said “cool” at the top is because when I scrolled to the picture it says Istanbul... I’m an American living in Turkey.
Cool. I just added you a couple days ago because I was looking for writers. I subscribed to 10+, to get into their pages and see exactly what they wrote about. Then I went to their Substack pages because you couldn’t really view them unless you subscribed. After looking through all of them, I unsubscribed to the ones that I didn’t like. As it turned out, I unsubscribed from every single one of them, except yours.