Friday, January 23, 2009

Ghost Stories

Even though I happen to be the biggest chicken on the planet, I also just happen to love ghost stories. I can remember coming to Maine in summers with my cousins, and sitting around the fire, first telling jokes and then, ghost stories. Being the youngest, I was always the most afraid. And, yet, I couldn't wait for the next sentence, for the following thought, for ultimate test of human will vs. the ghost's scary plan. I also loved Scooby Doo...and even though none of the ghosts were real, "thanks to those meddling kids", uncovering the mystery behind the ghost story always left me a little disappointed. I wanted Shaggy & Scooby to actually meet a real ghost!

While slasher movies have given ghost stories a bum rap, in my humble opinion, I think there is something intrinsically healthy in being scared, facing that fear, and moving on, feeling more brave as the result of a ghost story. There is a feeling of captivation by a well told ghost story. One gets caught up in the book, or the movie, or the storytelling, and for a moment, we forget where are, what we're doing, and can easily become completely absorbed by the story. While movies like the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" just strike me as disgusting, I have yet to meet a serious movie buff who hasn't enjoyed "The Shining". The difference? Both movies create a sense of fear and adrenaline, but "The Shining" is a true "story". It has a beginning, a middle and an end, and the path that winds around Jack Nicholson's descent into a ghost's madness is brilliantly told. It's terrifying, and yet, the intellectual stimulation of a well written, and famously acted, story creates the magic of artistic ghost 'telling'.

And yet, there is another aspect to ghost stories that enthralls us: the possibility of making contact with someone who has passed on. Even if you don't believe in ghosts, in heaven or hell or in reincarnation, there is a human fascination with 'what happens next'. All you need to do is read a book to a persistent 3 year old to understand the human experience of wanting 'more' after "the end". When my daughter was a preschooler, she used to get so frustrated with the endings of books that she'd flip through the pages, trying to find more of them, after the book ended. This is a perfect metaphor for how we, as a species, feel about life. We want there to be something *more* after "the end". Ghost stories, in a sense, give us another chapter to think about. Whether malevolent or helpful, mischevious or companionable, ghost stories connect us with the possibility of a part of us that goes on. Beyond the religious ideals of Heaven and Hell, ghost stories captivate our attention because, to put it mildly, they bring the story to our backyard, and not to somewhere far away. Ghost stories don't lessen our belief systems. They are simply a method of feeling rooted in being alive against the alternative.

Ghost stories are rite of passage for many of us. They evoke memories of summer camp, or long bus rides, or sitting in a movie theatre with high school friends. They challenge us to be scared, and then to triumph. Many people we know have experienced them first hand...and if we have not, we feel somehow missing out on an adventure. Therefore, the listening to stories, the reading of books and the watching of well made movies draws us into that 'inner circle' where we can include ourselves in the 'have experienced' sector.

Maybe there are spirits who haven't moved on. Maybe there aren't. But our need to measure ourselves by our endorphin barometer, now and then, can be powerful. Elvis' ghost at Graceland aside, as long as we know that we can turn on the light, and know that there are no monsters under the bed, ghost stories can be a healthy outlet....not to mention an awful lot of fun.

Oh, Heaven, it is mysterious, it is awful to consider that we not only carry a future Ghost within us; but are, in very deed, Ghosts! ~ Sir Thomas Carlyle

Monday, January 19, 2009

Problems vs. Solutions

Have you ever thought about what it would be like not to grow up? Quite literally, have you considered what the ramifications would be, if you stayed a child forever? When I first thought about this concept, of course, the image that popped into my head was “Peter Pan”….a forever existence of playing games, camping out, no responsibilities and no work. I imagined the sunset days of playing tag on the beach, collecting shells and roasting marshmallows. I envisioned one piece snowsuits, building snow men and sledding to my heart’s content. I thought of hours of Saturday morning cartoons and bowls of surgery cereal. I remembered swinging on the playground swings and having races about who could swing higher before we jumped off. I tried to evoke that heady feeling of hanging upside down on the monkey bars, and sharing confidences with my girlfriends, before all the blood rushed to our heads, and we fell off, laughing.

But, what if you literally did not grow up? What if time passed chronologically for you…and you were expected to graduate, find work and create an adult life, while still looking like a 12 year old? This is the theme captured in Jennifer Haigh’s new book, “The Condition”, a novel about a family struggling to deal with their daughter’s “Turner’s Syndrome”, a condition that keeps her 12 year old body from growing up, but still requires her to make her way in the world. The social implications are vast. Gwen, the girl with the “condition”, must navigate the social world of academia and life on her own. What amazed me most about this story was not Gwen, and her condition, but rather Gwen’s family, and their inability to adapt. Remarkably, Gwen builds a quietly successful life for herself, while her family takes on their own struggles by their inability to be as adaptive as Gwen becomes. “The Condition” is an excellent book. Each one of the characters is unique and mutli-dimensional in their own personal struggles. I found myself wanting to sit down and talk with each of them to learn more about why Gwen, who was doing just fine in her own life, had such a profoundly negative effect on those around her. Gwen’s family has to face the fact that she will never grow taller than 4’7”, she will never have a woman’s body, never be able to have children and still face a number of health problems. While Gwen creates her own independent existence, the lives of her family remain in limbo, all stunted by Gwen’s condition. Gwen remains steadfast and interested in intellectual progression and pushing the limits of her limitations. Her family finds themselves “stuck” in the moment in time when Gwen was first diagnosed. Old habits remain, and each member retreats into the place they were, themselves, stopped from ‘growing’.

St. John of the Cross wrote, “I am not made or unmade by the situations in my life, but by my reactions to them,” in the mid 16th century. How true his words ring today! Situations are going to arise in our lives beyond our control. We will find ourselves spinning our wheels in frustration, unable to change something unfair, unjust and unwarranted. We can’t stop time from happening. We can’t roll back the calendar to those blissful days of building sandcastles. But, we can rise above those situations that occur, and offset our sense of personal equilibrium. Our family has been beset with many challenges this past month. It has felt as if we were facing one major obstacle on top of yet another one, without a respite or a solution in sight. It has seemed as if we were on a treadmill, unable to change direction or move forward. What our family has been learning has not been easy, but we are coming to a place in which we simply try to look at each moment from every possible angle. We are learning the skills of persistence, of lateral thinking and of patience in problem solving. None of these lessons are complete, nor do they help us at every moment we feel a sense of powerlessness. But, we do realize that the refrain of ‘rise above and move forward’ can be incredibly helpful during times of trial. We have also learned that forward doesn’t always mean the direction we had thought it would…sometimes we simply need to change direction. Life isn’t always fair. To the contrary, life is rarely fair. And yet, when we continue to run against a metaphorical brick wall, we are only hurting ourselves. It’s the way of finding the path around, through, over or under that wall that the answers are revealed.

In Yoga, an asana I have found to be incredibly helpful during times of powerlessness and frustration is Camel Pose. Camel is an extended back bend. While those with knee and back issues may find this asana challenging, it can be especially therapeutic during times of stress and anxiety. Camel in a pose in which you lead backwards with your heart open. Coming into the pose is also metaphorical, in that your heart leads in a direction that is unexpected and unusual. I find that even spending just 30 seconds in Camel can have a profound effect on how I feel, and how my thought processes work. By moving backwards, and into a pose that seems counter balancing, I realize that, at times, I’m able to come up with new solutions to nagging problems. At other times, I simply find myself better equipped to handle problems that don’t have immediate solutions, by keeping an open heart and mind.

Everyone goes through tough times. We all face obstacles in our paths. We are treated unfairly, unjustly and have little recourse. And yet, we can also find these to be times of growth. We may need to divert our path. We may find that life takes us in ways we would not have chosen. And yet, when we're not presented a choice, the path becomes clear: stop moving, or find a new way. New ways aren't always easy or what we expected. However, we all need to find the lessons that await us, or risk being stuck in place. And, who wants to be stuck in place, never moving forward?

The race is not always to the swift, but to those who keep on running. (in reference to Ecclesiastes 9:11-12)