Monday, June 27, 2016

(Almost) Total Recall

 What is a Card Catalog? (with pictures)

Are you, like me, haunted by memories? And can you also say, like I do, that I hope that is true for the rest of my life?

I sometimes think I am on a fast track to Alzheimer's, and I don't mean that to be offensive in any way. I've even gone to see a neurologist who asked me the test questions and administered the little games meant to see if my memory is slipping up in any way. He thought I was fine. (But he also wanted to see me in a year. What did that mean???) I peruse articles about dementia, Alzheimer's, senility, and Lewy Body, studying early symptoms and comparing them to my own experiences.

One of the things that always jumps to the fore is the idea that a lot of patients with the above-mentioned conditions are great with memories of childhood and the past; better, in fact, at recalling grade school buddies than what they might have had for lunch yesterday. That is becoming truer for me than it was before. I like to think that I am running out of memory storage and that's why I have all the old stuff and don't retain all of the new stuff, but I'm not sure that's quite it.

Doctors say that people with Alzheimer's will forget basic things like what a watch is for, or how to work with a checkbook. Normal people, they say, are more likely to forget a name, or a face, or some other item that frequently will swim up to their conscious memory minutes or even hours later. Normal people have that tip-of-the-tongue thing going, like I do. Doctors also say that stress, lack of sleep, and lack of exercise can play havoc with one's ability to remember, as do some non-neurological health issues, and some medications. And all of that is reassuring.

But I don't want to lose my memory. Sometimes people tell me that I have a strange one. I'll give them that, I guess. I used to think that everyone remembered almost everything like I did, but lots of people I talk to can barely remember high school, let alone what they liked to wear when they were five years old (I favored corduroy overalls, myself). So maybe the way my memory functions is slightly different than the memories of other people. 

But I have since met other writers whose minds work rather like mine: I can recall every teacher I had in grade school and high school, entire conversations from thirty-five years ago, a song of rebellion dating back to the Spanish-American War that my sixth grade teacher played during music class; what my favorite umbrella looked like when I was in high school, the songs that were playing on the radio during my freshman (and Sophomore and junior and senior) year/s of college when I drove to class in the morning, and lots of other probably useless and ridiculously detailed bits of information. I think writers -some of us- need to have that so that we don't struggle so much with writing background and day-to-day scenes when we work.

Back in the day when I was reading John D. MacDonald and his amazing Travis McGee books, I remember him writing that McGee's friend Meyer had a memory like a house filled with rooms containing different kinds of information. When McGee wanted to know something and he asked Meyer about it, his friend would disappear into one of those rooms and then come back out with the answer.

Fast forward to the movie Dreamcatcher, based on the novel by Stephen King. The character Jonesy had a "memory warehouse."  I will never forget the sight of Damian Lewis trundling his wheelbarrow through that warehouse and passing collections of things like "song lyrics." 

Unlike the Medieval scholars, I don't have a memory palace. I don't even a warehouse like Jonesy. I've always thought of my own memories as being in something like an old-fashioned card catalog at the library. I have a thing about alphabetical order (ask anyone who knows my CD collection) so I guess that's not surprising. Lately I've been worried about that card catalog, though. I really don't want to lose track of my memories.

Especially the really evocative things like certain songs, or certain smells, that can bring me back into an entire time/place/setting/event in a way that is so real that I used to think I could time travel if I tried hard enough. There are times when an old conversation with someone from years ago will play like a movie through my head and I would swear that if I reached my hand out just the right way, I could touch that person again. I am haunted, in that respect, and that is something I never want to lose. 

Judy Blume once wrote that she could remember what she wore to school her first day of Kindergarten. Maybe those of us writers who are fascinated by memories tend to find ways to write about them: MacDonald and McGee's friend Meyer; King and the memory warehouse; more recently, J.K. Rowling and the pensieve. I love that concept. There are times I could use a pensieve.

But to get back to memory. I played with it in Saving Jake. Part of the premise of that book, the particular "what if" question (a "what if" question or two can be found at the base of everything I write) was, "What if someone was so good at retrieving memories that he could actually walk around in someone else's?" And along came Philip Corts.

Memory is an amazing thing. It's also double-edged in that if you are the kind of person to retain memories, you retain ALL of them, not just the fun or happy ones. And those vivid memories of past hurts, betrayals, disappointments, rejections, can still wound. Some might call it dwelling on the past, but it really isn't about dwelling on anything. I don't have to go very far into myself to pull up past injuries. And that was summed up by yet another writer, William Faulkner, when he wrote: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Are you like that, too? It's kind of a strange way to live. But I like it.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Spirit - Ancient and Very Present

 File:Ghost Ranch redrock cliffs, clouds.jpg - Wikipedia, the free ...

Some years ago, Jim decided to further his interest in Native American history and signed up for a class at College of DuPage, our local community college. The class included a field trip out to South Dakota to stay with people who the instructor knew on the Rosebud Reservation (Lakota) in South Dakota. This really whetted his interest and he wound up finishing their Native American Studies certificate program over the next couple of years, and visiting other reservations, both in South Dakota and in Wisconsin.

During the course of all of this, I was pulled into his circle of fellow students and colleagues and found myself participating in talking circles, sweat lodges, and even one curing ceremony. I never did get out to a Sun Dance, although he attended more than one. The experiences were interesting and sometimes even a bit frightening.

Anyone who has ever studied anything about indigenous people knows that all of the them live very close to nature. They understand their environment very well and know so many things that modern western culture is only now catching up to. They also deal with inexplicable things in their everyday life, or so it seems to me. I won't say more about the sweat lodges or the curing ceremony. Some things are best experienced for oneself. But I will say that through all of it, I could sense an undercurrent of power that sometimes felt as strong as the tide coming in, and other times as soft as a breeze. But it was always there, make no mistake.

Some years back, I had the opportunity to attend a writing workshop in Abiquiu, New Mexico, very close to Ghost Ranch. If anyone out there reading this is a Georgia O' Keefe fan, you may recognize that as a place she went to for inspiration and for solitude. The paranormal stories that have circulated about Ghost Ranch include disembodied voices as well as the ghosts of cows. (Go figure. It was a ranch, after all.)

While up in that area I could feel the presence of those who lived there before. Evidence of them is all around: there were scraps of stone from arrowhead flint knapping. Workshop participants got to tour a working excavation of an ancient village high up in the rocks of those mountains. Most of the establishments, both modern and not-so, are decorated with Southwestern flavor that either borrows from the people of the area, or is genuine and hand-made. The evidence of those who were there before is everywhere.

But it is out in the solitude of those mountains and canyons that you can really feel spirit, and I have no other word to use than that. The mountains watch who climbs them. They study and weigh those who come into the canyons to hike, to explore, to photograph, or draw. And they wait. I always felt that, when I was out in the wilds of New Mexico.

The first day, our guide brought us up to the top of a high plateau and had us sit in quiet and solitude to start getting the feel of the area: to note the play of light and shadow on the mountain peaks, to feel the wind that was both soft and dry, to have a chance to look out over the canyons below us. It was an amazing experience and I remember sitting there, cross-legged, looking out over a 5,000 foot drop and wondering if I belonged there. I could feel something watching me, deciding about me. I had my hands open in my lap and thought, if I'm supposed to be here, please let me know. At that instant a small living twig, with bright green leaves still attached, fell from the branch above me directly into my hand. So I knew. And I thanked them.

There are places in nature that I think can never be tamed and I'm glad for it. If you're ever out wandering through any of them, open yourself to the spirits who thrive there, who drift on the clouds or ride the winds. The ones who want to know about all those who come to visit them. They are watchful, but they are also patient and fair. If you're lucky, when you communicate with them, they will answer in their own way. I haven't been back to Abiquiu yet, although I hope to go and bring Jim with me. And I hope the watchers there remember me and don't mind me walking through their spaces again.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Tactile Ghost

In past posts, I have largely written about ghosts that can be seen. The apparition beside the bed. The extra face looking back at you in the mirror. The filmy mass at the bottom of the stairs, ready to ascend.

 I have also written at least once about ghosts that can be heard. Clairaudient is the description of the person who hears the dead without necessarily seeing them. Skeptics might suggest that such a person is mentally ill and is hearing voices that are only rooted in illness, but I think we all know the difference between hearing a voice outside of ourselves and hearing one within. Barring actual mental illness, that is.

Some spirits announce themselves with a particular odor or smell. The scent of a flower like lavender or lilac is commonly associated with the ghosts of fine ladies. Places that have witnessed disasters sometimes will haunt a person with the smell of smoke if there has been a fire, or the smell of the sea, if items in a room have been involved in a shipwreck. And of course, smelling sulfur or something rotting and nasty is NEVER a good thing.

But there is also the sense of touch. And that's one that seems to connect with me from time to time. 

I always tell people that I grew up in a haunted house. Heck, it's in every author's bio I have ever included at the back of my books. My sister and I frequently heard things. Jim actually saw something. But I have felt things, and the first time was back in the haunted house of my childhood.
When I was nine years old, I shared a bedroom with my sister. (Thank God. Sleeping alone in that house? No, thank you.) She was a lighter sleeper than I was at the time, and so anything restless in the house was probably going to disturb her before it bothered me. However, one night I remember waking up when it was still full dark. The entire house was still so I knew that everyone was in bed. I would guess it was about two or three in the morning, or thereabouts.

Going back to sleep -simply going to sleep- was never a problem for me when I was younger. I could shut down like C3P0: now you see me awake, now you don't. So when I woke up I didn't anticipate having any problem falling asleep again. I remember that I yawned and stretched and I also remember that I put one hand on top of the headboard of my twin bed. And was surprised to find what felt like a finger beneath my own hand.

I remember scrabbling around with that hand, trying to figure out what I had touched, and just one more time I felt that other finger beneath my own. It was across the top of my headboard, the end of it curled around to follow the angles of the wood. By then I was literally flailing around with my hand, looking for whatever was attached to that finger. I have no idea why I did that: I sure as heck wouldn't do that today! At any event, whatever I felt was gone. I never turned around to see if anything was there. I was young, but I wasn't stupid. I had touched something -or someone- that was behind my bed one moment and then gone the next.

That was just one more thing in the list of "things that happened" in that house. Fast forward to two years ago. Married, with children and grandchildren, and writing ghost stories as a job. I woke up in the middle of the night, a common occurrence at my current age, and lay there for a little while. I laced my fingers behind my head on the pillow and a moment later felt something touch and glide, finger-like, along the underside of my arm. YIKES! I was no longer nine years old, and lots of weird things have happened to me since I was a child. I yanked my arms back down and got farther under the covers. And managed to find a way to fall asleep again.

I don't give much thought to either of those incidents. Except that last night, yes, last night, also in bed and awake in the darkness, I felt something again stroking along my arm. (Why doesn't she sleep with her arms under the covers at all times? you're probably thinking. Good question.) Yes, I got back under the blankets. No, I didn't open my eyes to see what could have been there. I may be post-menopausal, but I'm not stupid. 

I am not the sort of person who likes being touched by someone I don't know. Being touched by someone I don't know and who is probably also dead goes far beyond simple dislike. More like get away from me. But there it is. When I least expect it, something decides to reach out and and

The house I live in now isn't haunted. I would never call it that. On the other hand, I do feel that sometimes -well, okay, frequently- visitors pass through our home. I hear the noises: the rustlings, the knockings, the shufflings, sometimes the footsteps. That's okay. That lends itself well to what I write. On the other hand, I would really appreciate it if all our guests would keep their hands to themselves at all times.