Ghost Hunting

Whenever I go to a new place, I look for its ghosts.

I don’t mean this literally. Some people actually go ghost hunting, and that’s fine I guess, but that would freak me out. No thanks.

No, the ghosts I look for are, ironically, a lot more concrete.

I grew up in western Pennsylvania, a place which, as my best friend once put it, is haunted. Flannery O’Connor’s South was Christ-haunted, but my western PA is self-haunted.

This is not in the sense that you literally see ghosts walking around, pushing carts at the grocery store, pumping your gas, or giving you directions to McDonald’s. (This may happen, but if it does please don’t tell me about it.) Western PA is haunted because it lives in the shadow of its own history. There’s a story behind the millions of wooded acres and crumbling brick storefronts. It’s one of a post-industrial area trying to survive past its original purpose.

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It’s like when someone leaves a piece of carpet in the woods, and a whole ecosystem grows over it, vines and grass and clover, and you don’t notice what’s underneath until you start to question whether the ground truly is the real ground, and you start to peel up the edges of the carpet, ripping the life on top to shreds. What’s underneath is real, but forgotten, and sometimes it’s easier to forget. Sometimes it’s better to pretend that the carpet is the ground.

I grew up thinking it was normal to find rusty machinery in the woods, that every state park had a ghost town in it, and that all small towns were struggling and hopeless. It wasn’t until I moved away, traveled, and studied some history that I realized how remarkable and tragic these places really are.

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Now when we go home to visit, I realize how haunted it is, haunted by itself. I see a city block and know what it used to look like. I drive through woods and know how the hills used to be shaved of trees and dotted with oil derricks. I listen to the stories people tell of the good old days, and that lost society feels close enough to bring back, if we could just beat it at hide and seek.

And I feel the ghosts. Not literal, spiritual entities, but ghosts in the sense that there were layers upon layers of lives before mine who lived in these places and called them home. Layers upon layers of eyes looking at the same things I see, layers of thoughts pondering the same things I think about, layers of joy and love and anger and frustration like I feel.

All those layers, all that history, all that life, builds up until going home feels so thick with stories I have to cut a path through them just to find my parents’ house.

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The funny thing is, I can no longer go somewhere new without knowing the place’s ghosts. When I know I’m visiting a new place, I must do two things: look up the map, and look up the history. I must be able to mentally, as well as physically, find myself around.

Sometimes I’m not homesick; I just don’t know the local ghosts.

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It sounds weird, or at the very least exhausting. That’s okay; it is both those things. But the best part about ghost hunting is it reminds me that life is made of stories. If we don’t seek out the stories, if we don’t look for the ghosts, they’ll be forgotten. Huge chunks of life will be forgotten.

And that’s why, I think, you have places like western PA. When we forget our ghosts, we get places that are little more than haunted, overgrown carpets in the woods, thick with layers of history that people live in, feeling overwhelmed or hopeless with no idea why. That’s why you have small towns where a whole life and society is built on forgetting. Remembering is exhausting.

But as a writer, I know my craft is one of remembrance. It’s my job to learn as much as I can, to choose not to forget. It’s my job to get down all the stories, all the chunks of life, we forget as the years go by and the world moves on.

It’s my job to tear up the carpet, shred up the turf, and look for the ghosts.

The “V” Word

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One thing that’s pounded into you in writing class is the importance of good description.

I remember a class I took my third semester of college. It was an online creative writing class, so it was a little odd. I never met my teacher or classmates face to face; in fact, I don’t think I ever found out what my teacher even looked like. Her name was Dr. Smart.

Dr. Smart became more of an essence, a presence, than a person to me. She lived in my computer and wrote messages on my work with one overarching theme, which soon became the bane of my existence:

You need to write more vividly. 

Dr. Smart didn’t just want to read my words. She wanted to touch, to taste, to see, to smell, to hear them. And to me it seemed like an awful lot to ask. “Use your imagination!” I often wanted to yell into the computer (where Dr. Smart lived, of course).

Vividly. Vivid. It was her favorite word. It soon became my least favorite.

That fateful online writing class was almost four years ago now. And now I get what Dr. Smart was trying to say. Now I think I’m better at writing vividly (although I still cringe at the word). I enjoy the challenge of arriving at a scene and figuring out ways to allow the reader to use her imagination, by giving her enough touching, tasting, seeing, smelling, hearing details she can pour her imagination into.

But a funny thing starts to happen when you get used to describing things: things start describing themselves for you.

In January I drove home for a few days to visit family. Oil City is about two hours away from Pittsburgh, and thankfully it didn’t snow on my way or it would’ve taken longer. It had stormed a few days before, and the fields and trees were still thick with six inches of snow, crisp like cream so cold it could be sliced and laid on top of the earth. The air was clear and sharp like a bundle of glass. As I drove, leaving the highways for back roads that took me higher into foothills and deeper into forests, the sun began to set, and the entire sky looked like an opal, all iridescent and smooth. The light got caught in the evergreen trees and made periwinkle shadows on the snow.

In short, it was gorgeous. Every new blink of my eyes was like bite of a feast.

How on earth can people hate winter? I thought, because people do. They choose to live in a place where they very well know it snows half the year, and they decide to hate it. Morons. (Sorry for the name calling.)

But to me, now, as I drove and probably wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to the road, the slew of gorgeous little details seemed so glaringly obvious. How do you not see the patchwork of lichens on a tree, or the way the grasses in a field are all a slightly different shade of brown, or the magnificent opaline sky?

The answer, of course, is that I’m a pedant, and that I only notice these things because I was trained to. I only notice these vivid details because some essence of a professor in a computer told me to write more vividly! So I had to learn to see more vividly! so I can write down what I see.

And then, as I drove through the Allegheny foothills in the winter sunset, I realized that writing vividly isn’t so important as an end in itself. It’s important for exactly these kind of moments; the drives through the woods, the strolls on the beach, the walks in the city. We write vividly so people read vividly, so they see vividly, so they live vividly.

I’m starting to like the word now.

 

The Beginning of Adventures

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It’s not really the beginning of all the adventures. We’ve already been to El Paso. It was hot, and pleasant, and you could see Mexico right over the poor excuse for a river. It was lovely.

Tomorrow we begin the long-term adventure to Arizona, to the desert where we’ll be spending the next two months. In the many times I’ve been to this lovely state, it’s always been summer, which I think is probably the worst time to go.

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And yet, it’s not really that bad at all. It’s beautiful. Just a different kind of beautiful than my own beloved state. I’ve been drinking in all the greenery here, hoping it’ll tide me over, a little nervous of leaving the protective hills and peaceful trees for the always open landscape and wide open sky of the desert.

There aren’t many clouds out there. You can’t get your bearings or mark time by the passage of giant masses of water vapor. In El Paso at an open air mall I looked up to see a patch of sky bordered by buildings all around me, and I was bewildered. All that was up there was blue, no framing trees or hills or clouds. I felt lost and disoriented for a moment.

There have been many times I’ve felt so bewildered, for reasons besides the sky. This past year–one year of marriage, yay!–has been bewildering in many ways (not because of marriage, okay. That part’s been great). I’ll look up from all that’s going on and try to get my bearings on the clouds and trees in my life, and when I don’t see them I become disoriented (and also really crabby). I’ve had to realize that my bearings do not come from the fickle sky or the changeable landscape, no matter how decent or reliable they might sometimes be. My bearings must instead come from the earth, the Rock I stand upon.

All other ground is sinking sand, which I realize is the desert, but that’s beside the point.

Everything is Beautiful

With the arrival of March, we enter “Still Winter”, a season known to the rest of the world as “Spring”, and one of the most depressing parts of the year in Western PA. The weather is a yo-yo. You can literally wear shorts one day and a parka the next (this week was like that).

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I used to hate this time of year. Every warm day made me incredibly giddy, but with every temperature drop my hopes were dashed. More than once I’ve trekked through snow on the way to church Easter morning, snow boots paired with a floral dress.

Last year I focused on just getting through winter to better days, and this year I tried to love it while it was here. And I’ve realized after everything that I actually absolutely love Still Winter.

There’s something about the the trees so bare and the grass and brush so many different shades of brown, all waiting for something to happen, that gives you this sense of incredible hope. The tops of the trees are thick with tiny buds, which will burst out in a week if we have a good stretch of warm days. And time seems thinner; I feel the accumulated hope of many years and generations all coming together with the spring.

Everywhere I look I see something beautiful. It’s usually very mundane things, like a house or a bush or a rock and some snow. But I can’t help it. My eyes get pulled in and I can’t stop staring and feasting on the beauty. There are things I think are so beautiful and I can’t explain why.

This weekend starts Spring Break. While Alex will be spending it in sunny South Carolina with his sports team, I will be in sunny Oil City, PA. It’ll be nice to catch up with family and friends, even if the weather doesn’t cooperate (I lied. It’s not that sunny).

My town is a forgotten one, a place that used to be great and isn’t, and I think that sense of failure and hopelessness is unconsciously imprinted onto everyone’s mind. Facebook has a meme page for Oil City, with some referring to it as the Elephant Graveyard from The Lion King. Lovely stuff.

But there is beauty there, too. There are tree-covered hills healed from decades of abuse, majestic brick buildings and painted gingerbread houses built by old millionaires. There are good people who need hope, who need to look at things and be captivated by beauty without understanding why.

So that’s what I’ll be thinking about this spring break and Still Winter. I hope I run into others who think about it too. And I think that practicing that kind of focus can do some amazing things. I’ll have to try and see.

 

 

I Will Love Winter

Almost a year ago I wrote a post called “How to Survive Winter (in Eleven Easy Steps)“. While I appreciate the sentiment in which I wrote it, I feel I’ve matured in a year, and now I am ready to tackle the monumental task of actually loving winter.

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As a kid, I loved the cold, ice, and snow of Western PA’s longest season. My winter memories are filled with snow forts and snow men, pine trees, hot cocoa and bundling up on the couch to watch Peter Rabbit. These memories have left me with a deep-seated affinity for late-90s long wool coats and fluffy hats.

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(My oldest friend and I, before any consciousness of fashion.)

Unfortunately, I’m an adult now, which means I can drive. Winter’s no fun at all when you have to drive in it. I also have a tendency to be glum when the weather’s glum. So last year’s goal to simply survive winter was an attempt to not give into seasonal despair.

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But why should half the year serve as fodder for grumpiness? Why should we automatically kick into survival mode when snow starts to fly? Unfortunately, this is the Pennsylvania way. As a Pennsylvanian, I protest. This is not doing winter justice. It’s not doing nature justice. And, if you’re inclined to take it further, it’s not doing God justice either.

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Winter is beautiful, and yesterday was the perfect winter’s day. The sky was pearly, cloudy baby blue, and the snow fell in thick clumps, blanketing the trees and rooftops. It’s the kind of weather I used to spend watching Peter Rabbit after hours of cold, flushed sled-riding. Winter, I’ve found, in all its icy, cozy, wet and slushy glory, is a part of life. If we ignore or try to simply survive giant chunks of life because we deem them less than ideal, we miss out on the incredible beauty and blessing that can be in them.

Sometimes it’s genuinely, horribly, not fun to go through a winter, whether it be literal or figurative. (find me in March; I’ll be complaining then.) But when we approach our winters with an open mind and a determined heart, we find the beauty in the cold. And at the end we appreciate the season for what it was.

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I came across a Norwegian saying in my winter studies. Norway, as you know, is much colder than Western PA in the winter, but from what I’ve seen the Norwegian people are much less grumpy about it than Pennsylvanians. They say that “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing”. It sounds trite and quirky, but it’s actually an excellent game changer. When we actively prepare for and purpose to enjoy the colder season, we find we can focus on the glittering snow and stark tree branches instead of our wet toes and frozen ears.

The Norwegians (apparently) also value community, and winter means a chance to ski or toboggan and cozily socialize with friends and family. This year I’ve started an (admittedly nerdy) knitting group in my home, and this will keep me and my friends connected while the days are dark and cold.

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(these are not the friends to which I was referring.)

If you’re interested in joining me as I re-learn to love winter, take a look at my Pinterest board (if only to reassure yourself that winter is indeed pretty). If you find something that could contribute to the cause, suggest it to me! Together we will not just survive: we will take joy