Thursday, November 5, 2009
Ghosts You Can See
I wanna do better I wanna try harder I wanna believe Down to the letter Jesus and Mary Can you carry us Across this ocean Into the arms of forgiveness I don’t mean to laugh out loud I’m trying to come clean Trying to shed my doubt Maybe I should just keep My big mouth shut --Over the Rhine, “Long Lost Brother” I suppose it was appropriate. A stiff wind was blowing in from the southeast, pushing leaves across the pavement in a scritch-scratch swirl as I walked the few blocks through Waukegan from the Genesee Theater to my car. All Hallow’s Eve was only two hours away and I was leaving the Ray Bradbury Literary Ghost Stories Festival. I don’t believe in ghosts. But I do believe in being haunted. I often find myself in the company of specters. Those old stories of monsters and ghosts and things that go bump in the night have largely been ruined by our modern society. We don’t understand them, so we corrupt them, ruin them, forget their power. Those terrible Stephanie Meyer books with sparkly, brooding, sex symbol vampires and their swooning, anti-feminist main character completely ignore what vampires were originally all about. For the vampire was originally about the dangers of sexuality. Creepy, disturbed, restless old men stealing in to a woman’s room by night to suck the life out of her in order to live just a bit longer are not men to be admired or sexually idealized. Similarly, the ghost story is not about Casper the Friendly Ghost or idiots running around with night vision cameras and silly gadgets on the Sci-Fi Channel. It’s not even about the dead at all, really. For the ghost story is about a soul in torment, unable or unwilling to move on from a past filled with shame or betrayal. Whether it’s Hamlet’s father asking for revenge against his scheming brother or…okay, now that I think about it, we have retained the traditional idea of the ghost. Most examples I can think of involved The Sixth Sense or that Jennifer Love Hewitt show. Still, ghost stories aren’t necessarily about silly things passing through walls and yelling, “Boo!” They’re about the things that haunt us. They’re about the things that we can’t bury, whether it’s a horrible deed that gnaws away at our memories or a loss that simply won’t stop hurting. Ghost stories are about our need to give or receive forgiveness. They’re about the need to find solace or move on. They’re about how we don’t need to move on to the afterlife to be stuck in the place of our worst defeat or our greatest sin. Much as the ghost is forever stuck haunting that cursed patch of ground we get stuck haunting that cursed memory. As such, I don’t believe in ghosts but I do believe in hauntings. I was haunted the night before Halloween at the Genesee Theater. Jim May made sure to point out the various supernatural presences that are supposed to hang out in the venerable old building. They were the standard stories of some tragedy of decades past where the victim left an imprint and supposedly still wanders the place. My haunting was a bit more immediate. It wasn’t even tragic. It involved my first visit to the Genesee Theater just two Halloweens ago. It was with Her. There was, of course, the commensurate recollection of October last, when I didn’t go to Bradbury. I was, instead, moving, and couldn’t exactly take the full U-Haul up to Waukegan that night. No, what I remember is that the following Sunday was the last time I had an actual civil encounter with Her. The last time I thought that we might actually be able to be friends. Truth be told, these recollections annoy the hell out of me. I can safely forget about her for weeks or months at a time. I can easily recognize that my life is better without her involved in it in any way, shape, or form. Then I find myself haunted. And it’s not always just the memories. Sometimes it almost seems like she’s there, in the room, that I could walk up to her, reach out, touch her. Because, well, because she is. Because I could. Theoretically. I don’t really want to, though. I know better. The inherent problem with my hauntings is that they occur in the places I’m most likely to have good memories of her. They’re also most likely to occur in places that are some of my favorite because of the memories I have that don’t involve her. This is the hole I dug for myself when I got involved in storytelling because of her. I took 94 back home from Waukegan. I figured that it would make me feel better. I love driving down the spine of Chicago from the north and seeing the city spread across the horizon. It was clear and overcast that night. Off to the left of my car the city spread out, tiny rectangles of yellow poking out of the darkness and defining the shapes of building barely visible. My city by the lake. My home. It offered no comfort that haunted, accursed night. For the first time since I stopped believing that the reason I hated myself was because I was in the wrong place I felt no connection to Chicago, felt no love for my city. I realized I could leave. On some level I realized I wanted to leave. Of course there’s a problem with that. I couldn’t get a couple lines of a Lovehammers song out of my head. Run away from your problems (No) Run away from Chicago (No) --Lovehammers, “Low Life Insurance (Let’s Get Wasted)” I have a theory that I stand by. Every time you leave a place to get away from some problem the first thing you pack is whatever you’re trying to escape. Emotional baggage is extremely portable. But does this situation really apply? I’m not exactly pulling a Mikey from Swingers. I’m not sitting here pining for her. I’m not waiting for her call. I don’t think about her unless I’m being haunted. External factors have opened up the possibility that I’ll be moving to Dallas. It’s not like I woke up one morning and thought, “You know, I really want to move to a state where I’m practically guaranteed to be thought of as a big city librul by everyone and will never again vote for a winning candidate in any election ever.” It’s not like I realized it was really annoying to go somewhere I’m reminded of a certain individual and thought, “Shit, I’ve got to move halfway across the country just to escape from this.” By the same token, it would be really nice to be in a place where there’s pretty much zero chance of walking in to a room and remembering her. It would be really nice to start fresh. And, hell, that’s not just about her. The whole possibly moving to Dallas thing forced me to sit down and ask why I have this knee-jerk, ‘No, I don’t want to go,” response. I mean, beyond the fact that I’m not a big fan of Dallas but I am a big fan of Chicago. What’s the standard knee-jerk? “But I have a life here!” I thought about that a bit and I realized something. I really don’t have that excuse. In truth, last year when I moved to my current home it was almost like moving to a whole new city. My friends have been scattering, I don’t talk to church people too much anymore and I basically needed to restart my life. I’ve only started taking the first, halting, steps toward that new life over the last couple months. So I could pack up and leave. In fact, it might be good for me. It would force me to say, “Okay, I have to start over now. No excuses.” I can’t pretend that just because I still live within 20 miles of “home,” I have a life by default. I’m still not terribly excited about the idea of moving 900 miles away from my city by the lake. I’ve already got a list of things I know I’d miss. Regular Local H and Lovehammers shows. The annual March Saw Doctors show at the Vic. The Bradbury Festival, the Fox Valley Folk and Storytelling Festival, the Illinois Storytelling Festival, Megan and Janice’s monthly open mic, my Guild meetings. Trader Joe’s. That rule that makes it illegal to smoke within 50 feet of the state.* Not being constantly worried I’m surrounded by people who are most likely a.) armed and b.) possibly insane. My dog. There’s probably other stuff, too. But I don’t want to have to start crying. Seriously, man. Trader Joe’s. The Saw Doctors at The Vic. However, whether it’s moving or running, whether it’s by choice or not, even if I’m not overly excited about the idea of moving to Dallas, I’m at least at peace with the possibility. Which is good. Because I got some news today. And let’s just say I’ve decided it’s a good idea to familiarize myself with the housing market in Irving, Texas. ----------------------------- *Seriously. I was strongly against that rule when it was passed. To be honest, on the level of not liking it when the government goes all nanny on everyone I still do. But it’s really, really nice to be able to go to a show or a bar and not have to take a shower when I get home. During Rogtober I was reminded of how nice it is to get home feeling, well, if not exactly clean, at least not smoky. Oh, and you can actually smoke in Illinois. Just not anywhere anybody actually wants to be.