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Monday, September 19, 2016

Ghosts, Miracles, and Raymie Nightengale

So in the tradition of getting into things well past their point of being part of the general conversation and then wanting to talk about them even though roughly one million thinkpieces already exist on the subject that are both thinkier and piecier than mine, I'll touch briefly on a thing I've finally caught up on and am therefore an expert: "Stranger Things".

The only thing I want to say about it is that while it's creepy and tense, it doesn't really scare me. I'll watch X-Files style of scary stuff all day long. Give me vampires and werewolves and space vampires and space werewolves and sundry other combinations of mythical supernatural beings both on this here planet earth and the space versions thereof. I will find these trifles adorable and exciting and fun, but not scary. Oh no. Never that.

Do not give me real life serial killers or serial killers who could exist in real life. I will not watch your slasher movies or your rednecks in the hills movies nor will I indulge in your cannibal redneck slashers in the hills movies. I have never watched anything that could be classified as "torture porn." And unless they include one Kevin McCallister, I will avoid your home invasion movies every day of the week. The one exception to this rule is, of course, if they are in space. In which case maybe.

I don't believe in ghosts, it turns out. We have countless ghost stories, some with multiple witnesses, some with eyewitness accounts from reasonably trustworthy people, some with horrifying illustrations by Steven Gammel that we all bought during book fairs.

But somehow in a world where everyone has a high quality camera and recording device in their pocket that captures the most absurd of coincidences and bizarre behavior we just haven't managed to catch one of those little guys on a camera. We have citizens training their cameras on every police officer and/or cat in this nation just to see if they do something horrible and/or adorable (honestly it could be either in both cases) but no ghosts. This doesn't include the countless TV shows where people go into the most haunted places in the world and have to fake evidence in order to have anything remotely interesting happen.

The people who are maddest at those reality shows, it turns out, are the truest believers. I get that. They don't want TV charlatans to give ghost hunting a bad name. Ghost hunters are generally so well-respected in the general populace that this is a problem, is my guess. Ghost hunters should be known for one thing only, their sword collections.

I certainly don't think I have the last word on ghost existence. I have a couple of weird stories from when I was a kid and we were driving around cemeteries trying to scare girls because we didn't think we were very interesting by ourselves so we let the tormented souls of the dead do the talking so that maybe we seemed worth hanging out with by default. I also think we see what we want to see and if what we want to see is a girl who wants to be hanging out with us when she is clearly uninterested you'd be surprised at how much self-delusion one can whip up. Also with the ghosts. Why just this year I was working with someone late at night looking for owls and she told a heck of a ghost story, even after both of us affirmed how little we believe in the things.

But while I don't believe that a place can be filled with ghosts, I do believe that a place can be haunted. This spring I stood on a Civil War battlefield and got the danged willies. I ticked off one thing on my bucket list (I can tell you what's on the bottom of my bucket list and that's Home Depot buckets. Those things stick together like bros do at Lilith Fair) this spring when I went to Harper's Ferry. There's not much left of the place, but what is there feels haunted as f.

"Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!" - John Brown

Now do I get the dang shivers because I know what happened there, or is there something else going on? Like if the signs weren't there, would I know anyway about so many people dying and bleeding into that soil? Is my amazing brain (amazing in the sense that every human brain and not in the sense that my goofy one is particularly great) processing reams of information and delivering a general sense of creepiness and I'm not sure where it comes from, or is there something else going on?

Before germ theory, people used to think that illness was caused by miasma, or a cloud of bad air that surrounded dead and rotting things. There's a great book called The Ghost Map about the London cholera outbreak that led to a serious exploration of germ theory, if you want to explore it further. But you get the point. We can call the heebie-jeebies haunting for now, but I suspect there's some good old-fashioned brain science going on there (along with a healthy dose of carbon monoxide poisoning cases) that explains things a little better.

This is all a round-about way to talk about something that may be more sensitive to a lot of folks, and that's miracles. A lot of the stuff I talked about with ghosts fits pretty well with miracles. We hear about some pretty amazing ones from back in the olden days, but nowadays somehow they never manage to get caught on camera.

I guess I mean a certain kind of miracle. I like the idea of miracles, but I also think it's a bummer every time a surgeon who has spent decades learning his or her craft, practicing incessantly, always striving to be better, and performing at a level beyond the majority of humans who have ever been alive on this earth saves someone's life and it's proclaimed to be a miracle. If your car has a broken hose, and you take out that broken hose and put in a new hose and it works, that's not a miracle, it's mechanics. A lot of surgeons video the whole process and never, to my knowledge, has someone pointed to the camera and said, "oh look there's the angel's hand sewing that guy up. NICE."

Why is it when someone gets in a car accident they immediately have to tell you that, "the doctors said if he had hit my car an inch to the left I would be dead?" Guys, I'm no doctor but doctors are no physicists. Or when someone says that the seat belt saved their life but they didn't put on their seat belt. You ever have those days where you wash your hair twice because you didn't remember doing it the first time? If something is routine we don't remember doing it, that's the whole point of a routine.

Anyway, I'm not trying to talk anyone out of anything, I'm just sort of thinking out loud (yes I talk while I type, don't you? Also when I delete something I've written I have to say the words backwards as I delete them or I will die. This is why people say writers are brave.) and what I'm thinking is that this kind of thinking can be dangerous. Because why does that dude get a miracle? I know for a fact that they torrent all of their movies.

It's sort of the same way I feel about ghosts. If you ever read a ghost book you'll find that all the ghosts are dukes and princesses and stuff. Famous rich people. How come it's always mansions that are haunted and not trailer parks? The poor get the shaft during life, and don't even get to wander the earth and see how cool smart phones get after they die? Bummer, poor people!

Now whatever your belief system, I think there's a pretty interesting story in the surgeon who is exhausted but finds herself with a burst of energy and clarity during a surgery. Something unexplained and fortuitous. Or maybe she feels like her hands are working on their own. Or when you're driving and suddenly you feel like you should really, really buckle up. Is that something otherworldly talking to you or is it your brain taking in information clear up the highway that your conscious thoughts hadn't caught up with yet? I don't know.

I've had experiences of my own that I have a hard time explaining away, especially with volunteering. I've taken over someone else's shift on the rape crisis team and then gone on a call that I really felt I should have been on. Does that mean I did great and they would have done crappy? No (yes (no)). But I felt like I had some bit of knowledge or the right thing to say. I don't know if that's the case, but I think it. Does that make it a miracle or am I just a narcissist? Maybe the miracle is my simple, glorified existence and its gift to both humanity and wildlife.

There's a reasonable amount of data supporting going with your gut and there's a reasonable amount of data saying that our guts are crappy. Some data (scary zombie movies) seem to point to guts being gross to look at but delicious to the undead. I'm not sure what to do with all of this data. I see this all of the time with fantasy football. My strategy is to go with the preponderance of data, but sometimes at the end I just pick a guy because I like the cut of his jib. Results vary.

The Raiders beating the Saints week one of the 2016 season sure seemed like a miracle. But I have a hard time thinking that God or the Universe or whatever you believe is moving all of the levers would make a guy whose job it is to make field goals miss so that Howie who is sitting in church trying to surreptitiously keep track of the game on his phone while pretending to listen can get a little dopamine rush.

What I'm saying is that I don't think God roots against people just because the other team prayed harder for it. I just don't.
If the wishes came true, they came true in terrible ways. Wishes were dangerous things. That was the idea you got from fairy tales.
Here's what I do think. I think that this is a sometimes miserable world to live in even though every day we are surrounded by beauty and astonishing human achievements. We walk under skyscrapers like there's nothing amazing about that and we look at supercomputers in our hands that can answer every question but no matter how much we stare we don't find happiness in them. We see these little birds on the street that are full of tiny organs and synapses and blood and stuff and we just think "gross, those things eat garbage." A lot of us are just barely scraping by and feel like we are perpetually one broken transmission away from homelessness.

What we need are some little miracles. A neighbor dropping off a loaf of fresh bread when you're standing around and wondering what you're going to eat for dinner, not because you're poor (though sometimes it's that) but because you're both just so exhausted. Maybe somebody remembered that they owed you money that you forgot about and the food truck you like is right outside your office and you could really go for some Korean bbq and hey, why not. This is all stuff that if you recorded it on your phone camera and uploaded it on youtube nobody would care but in that moment you know that it saved your dang life.

That thought is scary, though, because it means it's up to us. We can't count on an angel saving children who are sex slaves. We need to support people who are actively striving to stop it. We can't expect one of the Three Nephites (non-Mormon readers should really look this up) to stop a rape. So we talk about it a lot and refuse to support a political party or university that doesn't take it seriously and sometimes we sit with the victims and give them a blanket and a comfy change of clothes. If we can't expect dramatic miracles to rescue those who are scared and hurting and lost, that's a lot of responsibility. And that's on us? Like I said. Scary.

In Raymie Nightengale, by Kate DiCamillo, we meet 13-year-old Raymie, whose dad just ran away with a dental hygienist. Her mom isn't much help because her mom is devastated. So Raymie is taking baton-twirling classes because if she wins the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition he'll see her in the paper and realize that he made a mistake and needs to come back home to be with his family. There she meets Louisiana, who lives with her grandmother in constant fear of being taken away to live in the County Home, and Beverly, who is a master lockpick and victim of abuse. It's 1975.

DiCamillo isn't afraid to delve into difficult family situations, and I imagine that for kids who live through this kind of thing, seeing their lives portrayed on a page is deeply compelling. For those of us who had an easier childhood, it helps us understand children who are suffering and show it in ways that make them seem impossible. She does it with a matter-of-fact sweetness that is heartbreaking sometimes. The kids in her stories don't know how hard it is. They are just surviving. They aren't miserable little objects to pity, but real kids who still have fun even though they're confused and scared a lot of the time.
She had on a spangled top that sparkled like fish scales. Her hair was very yellow. She looked like a mermaid in a bad mood.
But they also have seen too much of the world for their little hearts.
The world went on. People left and people died and people went to memorial services and put orange blocks of cheese into their purses. People confessed to you that they were hungry all the time. And then you got up in the morning and pretended that none of it had happened.
If I could summarize serious young adult fiction very briefly, given my past two reads, it is this: these are books that confront many of the uncomfortable and scary aspects of reality but with happier endings than their adult counterparts.

"Happy ending" is a bit too simple, I guess. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that the endings of Counting by 7s or Raymie Nightengale are "happy" in the traditional sense, but I felt good after reading them. In Raymie Nightengale, Raymie's dad (spoiler) does not come back. Beverly's mom doesn't magically stop hitting her. And Louisiana is in better shape, but has a ways to go before her problems are behind her. But there is a real miracle at the end of this book. It's such a minor thing given the scale of the problems that these little girls face, but it's also everything.

It reminds me of Francie Nolan's flowers in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Compared to her problems, they are nothing, but at the moment, they are a miracle. That's my whole point, I guess. I don't think there are ghosts, but I think that we can be haunted. I don't know about red seas parting, but I do know that if we listen and pay attention (again, is it God telling us to look out for each other or something in our DNA? Don't know.) we can save the day. Or at least soften it.

Here's a thing about being an adult a human. You start to realize that everything doesn't turn out the way you want it to in the end, and you also figure out how to survive with that. Some of us learn this earlier than others, unfortunately. You see little miracles and think that maybe those little miracles are enough, even if they don't solve your problems, they make them livable.