My Life with the No-Longer Living
When you look through a leaded glass window, the scenery beyond bends and bubbles, rendering it just right of realistic. Experiencing a ghost is a bit like that.
I say "experiencing" because I don't always have to see spirits to know they're around. Sometimes I feel them, hear them, or even just suddenly get an idea of them. The faint imprint of random thoughts, visions, emotions, or turns of phrase float through my head like music from a neighbor's backyard. I'm constantly at battle with my rational mind, grappling with a rippling world that hovers like heat waves atop my own.
I almost always feel like I'm making it up. And from what professional mediums have told me, that sentiment never really goes away. A tenet of mastering spirit communication, it seems, is that your left brain need not apply.
I grew up believing in ghosts and knowing my psychic gifts were matrilineal. My mom's blind grandmother assigned a star to every grandchild and knew the moment one of them died when she "saw her star fall out of the sky." My mother dreamed things before they happened—her high school burning down, a friend's car accident, my father's cancer.
I started dreaming as my mother when I was about five years old. I'd walk through her childhood farmhouse, fall back into a pile of leaves in a nearby field, plug in the kitchen coffee pot, lounge on the embroidered quilt atop her twin bed—then I'd wake up and describe every intricate, deadly-accurate detail to her. My mom paled during each retelling—her parents sold the property to land developers shortly after she went to college and it fell into disrepair within a decade; I'd never even seen the outside.
As a teenager I was often overwhelmed by nausea when I walked into certain spaces—I felt that it meant the spot was haunted or had a traumatic incident attached to it. I usually kept this to myself (adolescents rarely court reasons to be labeled a weirdo), but my childhood best friend can attest to the fact that I never slept a wink when we crashed in the converted room above her family's garage. Every time my lids drooped I saw a man standing at the end of the couch with a noose around his neck, staring at me with cavernous black eyes.
But the most visceral thinning of the veil, for me, came with the figurative donning of a black one. My father died when I was 23—I was in the room when he passed. His last goldfish-gulp of air crystalized my foggy dealings with death into realities as concrete as his headstone. All at once, it clicked: the spirits approaching me unbidden were people. The night after he died, I dreamed I was driving on a highway when my cell phone rang. The caller ID said "Dad." In the dream world, I was aware that he was dead, so I picked up and, perplexed, said, "Daddy?" "Kate," he replied. I broke down crying—my father had been too depleted to talk for the last few weeks of his life. I'd missed his old voice, it's not-sick tenor. "I'm home," he said. I tried and failed to choke out a message to him through my sobs. "I'm home," he repeated. "I'm hooooome. I'm hooooome." The phrase continued like a mantra over my wails until I shot awake in bed, dry-eyed. It was my first and only postmortem visit from him.
Things carried on in the usual way until about a decade later when I spent a week with my sister and some friends at a rented cottage in East Hampton. It was a seemingly idyllic place—weathered shingle siding, light-filled kitchen, overstuffed white linen couches, wide-plank pine floors. I felt buoyant when I stepped inside—all the usual tells were blocked. But that evening as I tried to fall asleep in a guest room, I had the distinct impression of a man wearing a ragged fisherman's cap, slouchy suspenders, and a dirty white shirt leering at me from the left-most corner. He was there every night. Over the course of my stay an utterly primal fear set in—even during the day, the hairs on my arms stood straight up when I was in the house. I barely slept; by the time we left, I was utterly delirious.
After that experience, my sensitivities became super-powered. Often, as I drifted to sleep in my Brooklyn apartment, I'd hear a cacophony of voices—snippets of mundane overlapping conversations like "...have to take the dog out..." "...and she told me it was my fault..." "...during tomorrow's meeting..." "...somewhere in the laundry..." I asked a reiki practitioner if I was hearing the living or the dead—she shot me an enigmatic smile and said, "Both."
I became a paranormal barometer for my friends, whispering my impressions of each new spot where we gathered over cocktails or entrees. Often my claims would prove accurate when we asked an employee to substantiate them. Like the time I ate at a circa-1773 restaurant with my friend Diana and pointed at the second-floor balcony in the dining room. "I see a woman standing dead center and looking down," I said. "She's wearing an old-fashioned bustle dress with a corset and puffed sleeves and a huge skirt." When the waitress stopped by, we inquired about haunting activity in the restaurant.
"Most commonly, people see a woman in a dress right there," she said, gesturing to the area I'd just noted. "She walks down through the air from the second floor here to the first. There used to be a staircase in that spot."
Of all my unsettling experiences, I counted myself lucky to have escaped unexplained physical phenomena. And then I moved from Brooklyn to the 1847-era cottage where I currently live.
It started with books flying off shelves and pictures detaching from walls and landing across the room. I saged, I chanted, I consulted my go-to medium. Nothing stopped it. When I began writing my fiction novel—a ghost story—activity ramped up so strongly that I created an excel spreadsheet to chart it. I was grabbed by the shoulders. I felt someone sit down on the bed next to me as I fell asleep. I occasionally wake up at exactly 8:00 am to a series of knocks on my bedroom wall. This past October I walked into the bathroom to find three letters scratched into the wood of my medicine cabinet, right beneath the handle. It's amazing what a person can get used to, but defacing my property, I decided, was the last straw.
After consulting a coterie of experts, it became clear that I needed formal training to learn to receive messages from—and enforce personal boundaries with—the spirit world. In December, I signed up for a two-month-long beginner's mediumship class with a highly-recommended mentor. I started training last week.
My extra-sensory experiences haven't excluded me from being scared of ghosts, but the course's self-healing requirements are ushering new things to be afraid of; darker things, deep-inside things. I'm tiptoeing into the depths brandishing nothing but blind trust that the conjuring of demons will help me conquer my own. A medium once told me, "The only time a spirit has power over us is when we forget who we are and become afraid." So perhaps what awaits on the other side is simply...me.