Musings on the presence of spirits in our literature and in our lives.
Books by Picault, Saunders, Telgemeier. And thoughts from my creative journal.
I offer a short piece on an old man dealing with dying.
What I’m Reading
This week my readings are a mashup of books I’ve read, my own journal entries, and musings sparked by those stories. The other day I began reading my journal entries from May 2020, in the early days of the COVID lockdown. At that time I had finished reading several books that, by coincidence, centered on the spirit life. George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. Jodi Picault’s Leaving Time. And a delightful graphic story titled Ghosts, by Raina Telgemeier.
In my journal I had wondered about the spirits of those who have gone before us. Where are they? Do they manifest themselves at all?
My musings took me to the film West Side Story. They shot the movie on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in a neighborhood being torn down to make way for modern apartments and Lincoln Center. Recall the iconic scene where the Sharks dance in a rubble-filled lot, in front of a row of brownstones. My grandmother had lived in one of those brownstones, before eminent domain moved her and all the other tenants off the street.
My grandmother lost her first son to pneumonia when he was just a teenager. Probably in the late 1920s. I don’t know where my uncle Tom died. Home? Hospital? But I wondered, where would his spirit have been? Was his untimely death a reason for him to linger between worlds? If so, where? I am guessing that spirits are tied either to a person or to a place. In Saunders’ book, the spirits are confined to the cemetery where they were buried. When my grandmother was forced out and went to live in Queens, and when they razed the building and the neighborhood, where would my uncle’s spirit have gone?
Do spirits linger with a purpose?
Do spirits linger with a purpose? Function as guardian angels for a time? I think any spirit that lingers here is not aimless, must have a purpose. Something unfinished. Someone who needs looking after.
I have not had any experiences of sensing the presence of a deceased family member or friend. In my lifetime I have certainly asked them to watch over me and my family, to look out for our welfare. But I can’t recall ever having felt their presence.
In the world of literature, spirits are real. They inhabit. They interact. They act out a purpose. In the real world, I don’t see it. Not directly, anyway.
Can I make a spiritual reference without invoking religion? Someone once commented that many people doubt God is alongside them during a difficult time. But if asked, Hasn’t God been with you in the past? they realize, yes, in my most difficult times someone or something helped me through it.
Perhaps in this life we only experience the presence of a spirit, a spiritual power, in retrospect.
What I’m Writing
This is a brief sketch I wrote, trying to capture a moment for a dying man.
Cleanup in Room 320
Johnny Torito lay stark naked in his hospital bed. “Time to get you cleaned up, papa,” a nurse’s aide said. She and a male aide turned Johnny in the bed.
“Looks like we’ve got a BM here. We’ll get you clean.”
“I got no control over that now,” Johnny said. He stared at the rain running down the window of his room while the two aides wiped him. They tossed dirty washcloths into a soiled-linen bin as they worked.
“Okay, boss,” the male aide said. “Let’s wash you now.”
They rubbed warm soapy wash clothes over his legs, his arms, his body. It felt good for a moment, till the warm water cooled off.
“You ever been helpless like this?” Johnny asked the aides.
One smiled. “Not since I was a baby.”
A memory flitted across Johnny’s mind. He managed to hang onto this one. Let it roll around in his mind.
He was maybe ten years old. There were six houses at the end of his street, alongside the highway. The city bought them out with eminent domain to widen the highway.
Johnny and his friends watched from across the street as the last family packed their car and drove off. As soon as the car was around the corner and gone, the scavengers moved in. They removed doors and windows. Took the lead sash weights from the window frames. Lifted out sinks and toilets. Pulled plumbing out of the walls. Piled the stuff in their pickup trucks.
Like now, he thought. I’m ready to go around the corner and they’ve got me stripped and bare already.
Paul Simon’s song “Kodachrome” crossed his mind. “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school.” Yeah, no one teaches you this stuff. How do you deal with drifting into dying? How can a hospital take over your life? Strip you bare. Roll you over to clean up the shit you can’t clean by yourself.
The aides put a clean hospital gown on Johnny, covered him with a fresh blanket.
“See you later, boss.” They left the room.
Not much later left, is there? Johnny thought. Not much later.
He turned his head to watch the rain. What’s left unfinished?
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