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.

pipes

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.

steps

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.

wood

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.

trees

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

Waterman Perspective Fountain Pen in Black

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.

 

Forest Paths

bliss

Forest Paths

Every day
I cut my path through the forest.
Some days
I cut miles and miles of new terrain,
and others
I barely make it a foot.
But I have a good compass,
and I’ll come to whatever glades and hills,
rocks and water,
highlands and lowlands
that my path is meant to cross.

There are others
who’ve cut great highways,
deep muddy ruts
scarring the once-green earth,
traveled by pilgrims
who were meant to cut their own paths,
but didn’t,
meant to follow their own compasses,
but didn’t.
They were fearful.
They were pious.

Sometimes
the great rut-makers
and rut-walkers
scorn my simple path
because it is not safe,
not logical,
and definitely not well-traveled.
They cannot see
that their own road
is wider and deeper and more twisting
than it was ever meant to be.

They have forgotten their compasses,
in favor of what was once a good direction
for one
or a few.
And now they think
it is the only good way.
They cannot understand
the thrill of the wilderness,
the beauty of pain,
and the joy of the small voice
when you’ve got a good compass.