I collect and interpret the supernatural experiences of others. I talk so little about my own that many people think I am a disbeliever. Not a bit of it; I’ve seen a few of my own ghosts. It’s just that I have to be inclusive of both major viewpoints, of believers and doubters, of those who believe in the active intervention of psychic forces in the world (“spiritualists”) and those who explain every function of existence based on material factors (“physicalists”). The two are as opposed as the extremes of American politics, but without the broad middle.
Convincing psychic experiences don’t happen to me often. I doubt that they do for anyone. The last apparition I know I saw clearly was in April, 1995. The one before that was ten years earlier.
I saw a ghost last week.
A little business took me to Massachusetts in December 2009. I used the opportunity to drop in on an old friend living in south-central New Hampshire. Early on a Friday evening I met Marc Smith at a restaurant-pub in Peterborough. We had dinner and a couple beers. We caught up and laughed like crazy.
I’ve known Marc since grade school in East Aurora, NY. I guarantee you that, in his teens, no one expected him to become an artist or an academic. No one thought he would amount to anything. He was a brawler and a carouser, and he had problems with authority. He found discipline and his love for literature gradually, and not until his middle twenties. The breadth of his life-experience lends so much humanity to his writing, his teaching, and his wit. This poet, professor, and Ph. D. can go effortlessly from a discussion of literary philosophy into football or boxing and craft perfect sense of the transition. He’s also one of the funniest people on the planet, at least if you get his humor. He’s the only person I know who can get me laughing that hard that fast. His recent rendition of one of our friends – at age seven – finding condoms in his parents’ bedroom was over the top. I’m laughing as I write this.
“Usually we’d have a guest room for you,” he said to me at one point in the evening. “We’re going to have to put you on the downstairs couch.” The spare bedroom in question had become the nursery for one of their cats, a 15-year old calico named Lena, dying of cancer. Lena hadn’t walked in two weeks and had even stopped eating. Her in-home euthanasia was days away.
I followed Marc to his condo, wondering what sort of menagerie I would encounter. At every one of my earlier visits I’d shared quarters with some new and downtrodden furry. Marc and Betsy have a penchant for redeeming outcasts. They don’t baby them – these people are not saps - but they form deep connections with animals no one else has loved.
“We’re down to two cats,” Marc said as he walked me in. “Soon to be one. Betsy and I are broken up about it. Lena’s been a really special animal - the most loving little friend you could imagine.” He said this as matter-of-factly as he could, changing expression only at the eye-corners. I’m not what you’d call a cat-person, but I will never discount the depth of the bond some people develop with some animals. I also know what it’s like to lose something, and I’ll never disrespect sincere feeling of any kind.
Betsy Carroll Smith joined us for tea and a most enlightening conversation. It ranged in and out of sports, spirituality, literature, history, and old friends and situations from East Aurora. Betsy is a former airlines pilot now working hard at her painting. For Betsy, creativity is in the genes. Her father and both brothers worked as sculptors. Her mother was a painter, and sister Sue Carroll Quinby, one of the finest natural artists I’ve ever known, did the cover for my first book, “Shadows of the Western Door” (1997).
Marc Smith teaches English at Franklin Pierce University. Like me a former student of Irving Feldman at SUNY Buffalo, unlike me he reads poetry or philosophy for hours every day. I knew he was ahead of me in these disciplines, but listening to him talk, I was impressed again by how far. I will never think about language and poetics the way he does. I hope I don’t have to to write capably.
We talked about what we were reading. I mentioned that I’d been working through a fifth reread of Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess” and a second round of John Matthews’ “The Winter Solstice.” I talked a bit about the War of 1812 on the Niagara and an article I was writing about the supernaturalism of Christmas.
The ghost-business brought our interests into overlap. Mark reached behind him to a bookshelf and handed me his copy of “The Changing Light at Sandover” (1982), an intricate, epic-length poem based on twenty years of séances held at the home of James Merrill (1926-1995), one of America’s finest 20th century poets. I cracked it and scanned a few passages. “Sandover” features comments and dialogues from disembodied personalities ranging from Merrill’s late filmmaker-friend Maya Deren (1917-1941) to the Archangel Michael (?-Never). If you know that influential poem you know the drill: strips of conversations caught in the middle; diverse lines and intonations swooping in on the reader like phrases from other tables at a restaurant. I’ll tuck into it come January.
A grey tiger-cat with a lot of rough hair sashayed under our chairs as we talked. She neared me once and I reached over to pet her. The instant my hand touched her she was out of reach, flowing like a startled guppy around the kitchen door with a little chirp I’d liken to a “meep” (her standard vocable, I’d soon see).
“Kelsey was a stray,” said Marc. “Got her at an SPCA in Portsmouth. We could hardly see her inside her crate. Couldn’t get her to come out for anything.” I usually win animals over pretty quickly, but this one was a shy bird. She liked to be in the conversation, but every time I went to pet her it was another duck and a meep. I was told that the cat upstairs, Lena, had run a tight ship over all the animals they’d had during her tenure, and that there had always been tension between her and the one with us.
By midnight I was settled on a couch in a back corner of the ample living room, twenty feet wide and at least thirty long. My pillow was to the wall, and straight down over my feet at the other end of the building was the kitchen. Just past it to the left was a hallway leading to a bathroom, the stairs, and the front door of the condo. The dining table rested just outside the kitchen, wings folded. On my side of the house near it was a cup-seat chair.
Sometime in the darkest part of the night I woke up. I looked over my feet into the dim room and got my bearings. Not a light was on anywhere, but I could see pretty well. Ten feet from my couch, a broad, faint plane of illumination came in from the right through the wide porch window. It shadowed a chair and just licked the locks of a still-as-roadkill thatch in it, revealing that Kelsey, the shy cat, had come in to sleep at some point earlier in the night. Evidently this was her favorite rest, and she didn’t think me such a ruffian after all. I was surprised to see another cat on the pale rug in front of the table.
This medium-sized, short-haired adult cat rested like the Sphinx in the pane of ambient light. Its head was up and its gaze fixed firmly on the shaded chair to my right in which the other cat slept. It was as still as if it was on guard. I gave it a bit of a berth as I made my way to the hall and the bathroom. No need to startle it. I passed five feet from it. I saw it as long as I looked - a second or two.
Even as I rounded the corner out of sight, I was starting to think that something was odd. I remembered being told that there were only two cats in the house and that the one upstairs couldn’t walk. Had Lena pulled a Lazarus – reviving from the dead – and rolled out for a stare-down? Was there a third cat that they hadn’t mentioned? I met my own gaze in the bathroom mirror seconds later, still thinking. Not only was something unreal about the visual experience, but this was a mighty strange cat. It hadn’t turned its head, hadn’t even flinched, as I’d approached.
In a minute I was back on the couch, and this “third cat” was gone. It didn’t surprise me that it might have moved and hidden among the shadows, but I was already considering the experience more than curious. I reviewed my impressions. In the dimness I couldn’t tell the cat’s color, but I’m sure its coat was some medium shade. There was enough light to tell a white cat from a black one. I fell back to sleep considering the likelihood that I had just seen an apparition – a ghost.
As I said goodbye the next morning Marc brought his beloved Lena down to see me, as if to let her and every friend of her owners bid mutual farewells. This was not the trim kitty who had ruled the roost all those years. Marc had to hold her like a nursing baby, probably the first time in her life she’d been so carried, but it was the only way to gather her. Her body puddled downward as if thick fluid had swelled inside her and made her a bag of bones and graying calico fur. She clung gently to Marc’s sweater as if to hold him back in any way she could. She turned to look at me.
I expected her to be bleary and half-alive, but those yellow eyes were shockingly fresh and alert. They belied the flickering of her life; and the gaze she gave me held the sense of openness of a human infant, taking me in as a new friend and eager for whatever I would bring. I was struck by the observation that this was too early for life to lose the being behind those eyes. They weren’t at all mournful at having to leave the world; they were grateful for having ever been part of it, for every second that was left.
This was not, though, the cat I had seen the night before, and my friends had no explanation for it. I left for Vermont with all those impressions. I spent two days in Stowe, much of the time reflecting on the sighting I’d just had and trying to figure why the whole experience had had so much impact.
Of course I debated the validity of the sighting. My skeptical friends would probably rebut the experience by saying that I must have been dreaming. That was the first thing I considered myself, and also the first I rejected. At the simplest, I know when I am dreaming and when I am not. I also know when I see something.
I have that scene in mind quite clearly. At some point in the following weekend I realized something else, that the ghost-cat didn’t cast a shadow. From where it was poised in the slanting plane of light, it ought to have pitched a long one. It was a self-contained image, imposed upon the scene, within the visual mural any of us sees anytime we open our eyes, but not completely of it. Apart from its surreal stillness, that should have been my first clue. Another might have come in the fact that the material cat was out cold in its chair under the shadow. I think a cat would have known it had company if that company was natural, material, real.
Granting that I saw what I believe I did, I looked for its potential meaning. Why could the apparition have been there? What was it an image of? There we hit a bigger snag.
I regard spontaneous psychic experiences like ghost sightings or displays of PK – psychokinesis – as kinks in the fabric of the Newtonian/material behavior of the world. They are “reality-glitches” like black holes or string theory that haven’t yet been understood. I try to be very alert for them; I don’t want one to get by unnoticed. But I don’t presume the intervention of spirits. I don’t regard myself as a freelance augur, either, interpreting all manner of what-have-you as omens or portents. I avoid projecting coherence onto situations that may be incoherent.
But suppose some of these “reality-glitch” experiences aren’t incoherent, just… difficult. Suppose there is sometimes meaning to be had, and logical reasons to conclude it. I would be letting down the other side of the argument – my Spiritualist friends – if I didn’t look.
I see now that another of my feelings was simple wonder. I had never expected to see another ghost. The last one I’m aware of seeing was in 1995, before I’d published my first book or led my first tour. By now I look at things much more clinically than almost anyone. I am almost convinced that the observer’s frame of mind affects the phenomena and that ghosts may be far less likely to appear to people who are engaged in looking for them – or defying them to appear. Why do our surveillance ghosthunters never come up with anything more than highly ambiguous orbs and shadows for all the time they put in at famous haunted places? Lots of sound and fury, but nothing signified.
It isn’t so strange that that new ghost would be the ghost of a cat. Animal-ghosts are quite common in the record. One out of twenty of the reports I get includes or features an animal-ghost, almost invariably one of our domestic critters: dogs, cats and horses. If I had to speculate upon why it might be just those forms, I would suggest that, in life, people attach themselves to these animals, and they attach themselves to us. (That’s a “spiritualist” interpretation, I realize, implying that the ghosts have motives for appearing. It’s less spiritualist to suggest that we have likely reasons for forming the impressions we do out of apparitions.)
The lowest common denominator of all seems to be to say that this apparition was a simple site-ghost. Despite the fact that my friends had never seen this extra cat and did not know of any earlier ghosts reported, the apparition I saw could quite well have been that of the pet of a former owner. It could once have rested in that very spot, hence what I saw was a non-material recreation of a scene from fairly recent history. This is what I think most ghosts are.
Another possibility is that this ghostly presence could have been one of the former pets of my two friends. They’ve had enough cats in their years in the northeast. While only the current pair had ever lived in this condominium, the idea that a dead cat comes to a spot in the world that it had never been in life seems no stranger than the fact that it comes back at all. There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave to tell us this.
The apparition could also have been an astral projection of Lena, the dying calico. A veterinarian friend tells me that some owners report seeing the spectral shape of a distressed pet days or hours before it dies, but in a younger, healthier condition. Some message, too, could lie in the pose of this cat-ghost - keeping a rapt eye on the mortal cat dozing in its chair. This would have been the ideal time for the underdog cat to head upstairs and settle scores.
The following Monday I was on my indirect route home. As I drove south along the Vermont side of Lake Champlain, the sky was open enough for the High Peaks of the Adirondacks to show on my right, slicked by the season’s first glaze. Even at that distance I could sense the thin mix of translucence and green and white they would have had underfoot. I was still haunted by my strange sighting that night in Peterborough, and the feeling that I had missed something about it. I was also touched on behalf of my human friends. From somewhere between Burlington and Fair Haven I called Marc. I asked him for any scrap of detail that might help me make meaning. I asked him for all his associations. Many of those details you have already read. One stood out.
My two friends came to value Lena so much that they had often wondered what became of the litter of her siblings. They would have taken in any number of animals like her. Years earlier, Marc had been driving through the New Hampshire town in which he had found Lena as a young stray. He stopped at a wooded intersection, waiting for a light to turn. A young calico cat came out of the undergrowth at the foot of a slope and made piercing eye contact with him, as if it had known him in a past life. The light changed; my friend made his turn and kept to his route, but this event was curious enough to mark him. Only later did he wonder about this chance sighting of what could have been the twin of the great animal-friend of his life.
Surely that creature has been with Spirit for years. The lives of strays are neither gentle nor long. They say the departed loved ones of humans come to them at the shift of worlds and guard or ease their passage. Could that happen, too, with animals? Does some possibility for my sighting lie here?
I’m haunted most by my short meeting with the living cat. I’ve never seen a look like that in the eyes of an animal. They took me in and all that was around me with optimism and wonder. They were still hungry for the good. Maybe what they gave me was the barest sign of why two impressive, enlightened people could have been so moved by this little animal. They reminded me of the eyes of my 99-year old grandmother the last time I brought a new friend to meet her. That sincere reverence for the life of the world as its light was about to close impressed me more than I can say. That’s the way we should all look at the world every minute we can be alive. I feel like I’ve had new eyes since.
In the wake of it as this holiday season courses, I try to look upon everything, every second of existence, for the fascination it is. “God in every blade of grass” is an old concept revitalized by many a Western writer. In earlier forms it might be called animism, and my Native American friends would have known well what it was. Walt Whitman reminded us Americans all over again, eloquently. I knew it before, but this is the first time I remember really feeling it. Who knows how long it will stay with me; but when I focus with these thoughts, the world around me actually looks different. Everything is fascinating for what it is. The people, the things, the scenes around me… Snippets of conversation in a café, the sky over the highway… They glow.
Because all this is spontaneous, and all this is perishable, and all this is precious, I thank the power of vision, for being able to see this and feel it. This season is so rich because of it. The finest Christmas gift I can ever remember receiving came in a glance from a dying housecat.
What if the world falls clear to us only at the edge of leaving it? What if the truest vision of our lives comes just as we have no chance to share it? That, to me, would be the worst tragedy of all, to know the answer of the world and to leave it, still hungering to give back.
When I trade the light of the world for that behind the Universe – or trade forms, leap back into it, and start over, naïve every time – I hope I will have left something for others like this little animal gave to me. This is why I am trying so hard to see it all now.
Mason Winfield © 2009