In my dream, the old house stands on a downhill slope, three wearily dignified stories crowding a sharp spit of corner rimed in brick.
She rises darkly and alone at the far edge of a small town–isolated from that mountain-cupped, all-American pocket of life, where the roads rise and fall like roller coaster tracks, streets are tree lined, and Memorial Day erupts in laughter and picnics, parades and bright bunting.
Years of neglect can be counted–like an old woman’s wrinkles–in her flaking paint and bare wood, weathered gray.
But inside–oh, inside! The first floor is a chockablock tumble of rooms scattered with dressers, desks, cupboards, and bookcases. Drawers and more drawers, drawers within drawers, and each one a mini pirate chest. Dreaming, I delight in my finds: sparkling rings and necklaces, books of poetry, a fountain pen with a delicately caved nib.
One flight up, the space is open and airy, the floor a cool-blue lake of marble flowing down three steps to a lapis lazuli hearth flanked by tall, swan-necked ceramic vases filled with white lilies. Glass doors at either end of the long room open onto balconies, one with a view of gently rolling hills, the other overlooking my backyard ponds.
The third floor? I don’t go there. It’s haunted, you see, by the ghost of a woman who watches and waits. Coldly waits, daring me to climb those stairs and open the door. Maybe she’ll kill me if I do.
So I live half a life in two-thirds of a house, surrendering that upper story and the brightest edge of my happiness, trying to pretend she isn’t there. Trying to convince myself she can’t turn the knob from her side and come for me.
But you can’t pretend away dead lives that lie in wait. Everyone who walks through my door knows about her. She makes them edgy. They don’t even stay long enough to sit and talk.
Except for the hard-eyed, wiry-haired, redheaded scarecrow who sold me the house. She doesn’t see the problem. What do I need with a third story anyway? “Live down here,” she says. “Ignore her,” she says. “I did.”
The neighbor recommends exorcism.
The ghost waits.
Until one morning I wake up and realize the ghost is my past.
I do not know what makes a writer, but it probably isn’t happiness.
If I had a nickle for every writer who associated past (or present) unhappiness with the art, I’d have … well … at least a few dollars.
Rudyard Kipling said, “(An unhappy childhood was not) an unsuitable preparation for my future, in that it demanded a constant wariness, the habit of observation, and the attendance on moods and tempers; the noting of discrepancies between speech and action; a certain reserve of demeanour; and automatic suspicion of sudden favours.”
According to Steinbeck, it takes an unhappy childhood to make a writer.
And Avi Steinman insists, “We write because we are constantly discontented with almost everything, and need to use words to rearrange it, all of it, and set the record straight”
Well, that’s depressing. I’d rather not buy into their sentiments, thank you very much.
But there’s that ghost in my dream, the ghost of a personal past populated with plenty of pain. (Alliteration as a tension-relieving device. Who knew?)
Based on my dream–and the frequency with which it visits me–I suspect I’m not quite through dealing with the bad old days. Based on my dream, it’s clear I’d dearly like to avoid doing so. My haunted third story strikes me as a dangerous place to visit. But, you know, one does what one must, if one wants to boot the ghost out of one’s attic.
And, trust me, I do.
What I find interesting is, the books I’ve written so far don’t deal much with pain. They’re not deep, they don’t explore the third story. They’re entertaining, humorous at times, edge-of-the-seat at others. Most telling of all, they tend to end happily. This is no doubt a fair indication of how determined I am to live on the fun floors of my old house. Also, how much I enjoy telling stories that might, for a short little while, let other people live on the fun floors of their houses.
Given the attics that haunt us all, I figure a respite on the fun floors of the house is a fine and good reason to write what I do. We can’t spend every minute of our lives facing our ghosts.