Living with Ghosts

William Burroughs was long interested in the question of immortality. His perfect novel, The Western Lands, is an exploration and indictment of the Egyptian path of mummification. Too bureaucratic, Burroughs said. But his critique was more profound. Besides being an exclusive right of the rich, besides being fraught with risks (a crappy embalmer and you lose your entry to the Western Lands), the Egyptian blueprint makes a crucial mistake: it assumes the body matters. Forget the body, Burroughs said. I'll get immortality through a transposition of my being into the virtual world: I'll live forever through writing.

William Burroughs, in powerful ways, lives with me. So do an array of other dead men — Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari. I feel so close to Burroughs that I in fact have his picture on my refrigerator, stuck there with a green magnet along with all the no doubt brilliant scribbles and hilarious photos of my son. (What are pictures but ghosts, traces of lives lived? My refrigerator door is a haunted house.) When my son was very little, I'd hold him up and point to the picture and say Who's that? And he'd point his little finger and say, Bill.  

My son — now nine — is afraid of ghosts. So I always tell him that ghosts are not bad, they're nothing to fear. We live amidst ghosts all the time, everywhere. What do I mean by ghosts? Well, I mean the virtual presence of things not here, of things dead, perhaps even long dead. We all know this whenever we rent a new apartment. There's a presence there, a mood. I'd call it an energy but I think people believe that's a fruitcake word when it's anything but. We know this when we wake with last night's kiss still on our lips: the lover is gone but something remains.  

This is what I tell my son. Mind you, this does nothing to placate his fear. In fact, it probably makes it much worse. Holy shit! Ghosts are everywhere! But I don't relent, annoying father that I am. Because I believe it's important to reckon the palpable, invisible presences that pervade our lives and that we, in turn, forge in our very wake. We live with ghosts; we make ghosts; we are ghosts.  

In the case of a writer, of course, this something left behind is words. Words are spectral bodies themselves, these minimal physical traces that contain whole and quite particular universes. A writer, however, does more than leave words: he leaves constructs, ideas, ways of thinking, affective experiences of all sorts. And not just any old experiences, not clichés which have no "owner," but particular experiences. He leaves his style behind, his distinctive way of processing the world: he leaves an algorithm, a way of living. Indeed, despite being dead, Nabokov, Pollock, Frida Kahlo, Lou Reed have all birthed innumerable artists following their styles (or trying to, as the case may be).  

People who are not artists create worlds and experiences, too. And these experiences linger with greater or less intensity with different people. I think of my Gramps, a Polish immigrant, left wing civil liberties lawyer who radiated a kind of patriarchal, if gentle and wise, fortitude who really liked scotch. Every time I drink scotch now, I feel him at once in me and looking at me, as if sitting across the table at the Parma, the old school Italian Upper East Side institution. He literally inflected my metabolism, the way I drink — heartily but with dignity, with control (even if it's just a facade). Despite being dead 16 years now, Gramps continues to live with me in a very real way. 

For the past five months, I've been spending considerable time in my childhood house. And, man oh man, it's haunted by all sorts of things; without Valium, I'd be up all night talking to ghosts. As I walk through the lush, green streets of my home town, I find myself weeping as I see, as I sense, all the pathos of youth and aging before me.  I went over the handlebars of my bike right there, careening down the hill and feeling immortal; I used to cut through that path to get to elementary school (walking to school at age 8!) and always getting poison ivy; I got a blow job in a car parked over there; I tasted my first mango there late one night, out of my brain with pleasure. It's all right there, present to me. 

Now, you might say: That's just your memory, dude! There's no presence. Ghost shmost. But what is memory other than cohabiting with ghosts, with traces of yourself and others, traces of experiences and things and lives?  As we live, we take up experiences of people, things, foods, places. They make their marks, visibly and invisibly, more or less intensely. We are made of traces of people and experiences. 

Over the past few months, I've witnessed my sister dying. I feel awkward and unsure writing that here; I've avoided saying it in previous posts as it feels too personal for the world. I hope in mentioning it I betray nothing of the event's magnitude, nothing of her privacy, and ask nothing extra of you (personal tragedy has a way of making readers more forgiving; that is not my goal here. I want my readers generous but critical to the end.). Anyway, I recently spent 10 days by her literal death bed in hospice as she lay in a coma. 

The doctors there speak of her journey, her transition. I'm not sure about all that but clearly something is happening as her body shuts down (I was going to say slowly but it's happening much faster than it is for you or me). She is  making some kind of transition, shuffling off this mortal coil (if ever there was a time to quote Shakespeare, that seemed like it). She is not quite dead but she is becoming-ghost. 

And yet, as I've been saying, we are always already becoming-ghost. We live with, and indeed as, our past selves and experiences. In some sense, then, I've always lived with the ghosts of my sister. She and I live 3000 miles apart, we spoke two or three times a month, but I lived, and continue to live, with her unbounded and generous love. I mean that in the most real way: her caring and love for me from when I was a small boy and my brother, sister, and I all slept in the same room in an Upper West Side apartment until now is my existential buttress, my tether to the social. It is her ghost, and the ghosts we created together, that let me live my odd life of solitude.  

But, all that said, there is a devastating difference between her being alive and being dead, between her spectral presence and her physical presence, even if they're always intermingled. Death makes demands of phenomenology that I don't think it's prepared to answer. Some of my more Buddhist inclined friends — Buddhist here meaning that distinctly American phenomenon that is quite beautiful but a far cry from the dutiful temple bound Nepalese version — anyway, these friends tell me all sorts of things that sound like this: She's beginning her transition but it takes several weeks before she enters this or that plane. For me, that's all fine and dandy but is as abstract and unreal as She's just dead or She's making her journey to heaven (or, in my case, hell). All I can reckon, the only thing that makes sense, is my experience with her.

What does it mean — for me, not for her — that her body will be no more? Well, despite the fact that I keep trying, I can't call to talk to her (Alexander Graham Bell was an advocate of the séance and saw the telephone as a way to communicate with the dead.) I keep reaching for the phone to call her to tell her how I can't believe this is what's happening, how unbearably sad I am, how this is totally fucked up. After all, she's the one I'd always call in a situation like this, something emotionally intense. But I can't call her. 

And that defines a limit. Her stop-you-in-your-tracks radiant smile will no longer light up the room. When I'm dealing with this or that emotional intensity in my life, she will no longer be there when I call, no longer calm me down, talk me through the angles, help me understand, or simply let me feel loved when there seems like no one else. She will no longer mother her children. 

Still, every day I reach for her. And while I can't call her, I do find her here and there. For one, I look at pictures of her — pig-tailed, holding me in my birth announcement; dressed up for her first prom; her wedding day. Photographs are incredible, these exceedingly powerful presences. In fact, I put one into this blog then deleted it before publishing: it was too powerful, too intimate, too much as if I were putting her here without asking. It felt rude. Photographs can be potent ghosts.  

But, when I feel stronger and more sure, I realize I don't need to reach for her. She's already here and always has been. She has always lived within my very fiber — not to mention the fiber of her children, my brother, my mother, and everyone who ever knew her even just a little. But, frankly, I don't care about those. I don't know those. The only thing I know is how she lives within me. I will never be calmed by her voice but her presence will always calm me, will always be the love that lets me exist at all. Is it the same as having her lively, vital self I can touch, talk to, laugh with? No, not even close. In all honesty, her passing feels like my disintegration. But just as she is transitioning, I am transitioning, too, to a different kind of knowing of her. Rather than calling her on the phone, I'll have to lean into her presence, a presence I will nurture until I'm gone. A good ghost is the ultimate gift.  

My now is built with ghosts of all sorts — some horrific, some banal, some exquisite. There's Burroughs with his wry, dead pan humor, slicing through life with dextrous madness. There's Nietzsche's careening, spot on passion that has me reckoning my will at every turn. There's my Gramps teaching me to drink, unknowingly and probably to his chagrin. And there's my sister, still here, always here, giving me the very ground that is my self. 

We all live with ghosts. To live, alas, is to create new life with the dead. And to try and leave a good ghost in our wake.


Jim H. said...

First, Wm. Burroughs's picture on the fridge is enough to frighten any kid!

Deeply moving post. I'm a stranger; there's nothing I can say that would be consolation for the loss of your sister. You've conveyed your feelings articulately, launched them into the inter/n/ether. That alone is tribute to her, or at least her place in your life and experience.

If I drill down far enough, I will have to admit I've experienced what I felt was the presence of what we might call 'ghosts' in my own life. And I have no rational explanation for those feelings/experiences. So much so, I don't even try.

Jim H.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Jim: You're always so kind — in sentiment and with your thoughtful comments. I owe you a reply or two, which is the kind of indebtedness I welcome, always. Thanks.

I have to say, I've been aware of ghosts since I was quite young. It might be an East Coast thing: those old woods are haunted. I think the trees help sustain said ghosts.

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