Grief, Spirits, and Storytelling

Nissaka man receiving a child from a ghost jpg HD

Detail from Nissaka man receiving a child from a ghost, Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Image: Wikipaintings

I read an interesting essay from the London Review of Books not too long ago: “Ghosts of the Tsunami,” by Richard Lloyd Parry. The essay tells of spirit visitations — and spirit possessions — reported by many people in the northern parts of Japan, the region struck by the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

Haltingly, apologetically, then with increasing fluency, the survivors spoke of the terror of the wave, the pain of bereavement and their fears for the future. They also talked about encounters with the supernatural. They described sightings of ghostly strangers, friends and neighbours, and dead loved ones. They reported hauntings at home, at work, in offices and public places, on the beaches and in the ruined towns. The experiences ranged from eerie dreams and feelings of vague unease to cases, like that of Takeshi Ono, of outright possession. […]

Priests – Christian and Shinto, as well as Buddhist – found themselves called on repeatedly to quell unhappy spirits. A Buddhist monk wrote an article in a learned journal about ‘the ghost problem’, and academics at Tohoku University began to catalogue the stories. ‘So many people are having these experiences,’ Kaneda told me. ‘It’s impossible to identify who and where they all are. But there are countless such people, and I think that their number is going to increase. And all we do is treat the symptoms.’

Parry links this phenomenon to Japanese beliefs and customs around ancestor veneration, and to the idea of muenbotoke: wandering souls, those who die without family or kin to pray for them and help them move on. If a tsunami wipes out your entire town, all your family, all your friends — who is left to pray for you? Anyone you can haunt or possess, apparently.

One of the people featured in the article is Masashi Hijikata, a publisher living in Tohoku (a region rich in supernatural folklore). In the aftermath of the disaster, Mr. Hijikata revived the tradition of kaidankai, or gatherings for the tellings of ghost stories. These kaidankai were organized to provide support to survivors of the disaster, those who were not finding their necessary emotional and mental support from traditional counseling or religion. They were places for people to share their disaster-related supernatural experiences with fellow survivors.

Interestingly, Mr. Hijikata doesn’t believe in spirits. But he did believe — because of where he is, because of who the people of his community are — that people would begin to see them, in great numbers. And he was right.

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Mangita and Larina: A Filipino Fairy Tale

This is a story from the 1904 collection Philippine Folklore Stories, by John Maurice Miller. It features two sisters, one dark, the other blonde, which makes me think that the story postdates the start of the Spanish colonial period. Certainly, the idea of a beautiful, good sister, and an evil, proud sister is a familiar motif in Western fairy tales (shades of Cinderella, anyone?).

This story caught my eye because it reminds me of when I was a little girl, with my coloring books. At some point, I had one of those big boxes of Crayolas, the 64-count size; this was back in the days when Flesh was still a crayon color. Or not — Wikipedia tells me that Flesh was renamed Peach in 1962, which was certainly before my time — but I remember that there was a crayon that was supposed to be flesh-colored, except it wasn’t the color of my flesh… .

NewImageThe original version of the Crayola 64-count box.
Image: Kurt Baty, Wikipedia

Coloring books (at least mine) usually tell a story, with heroes and heroines, good guys and bad guys. I would always color my favorite characters — the good guys, the princesses and their princes — with black hair and brown skin (Tan was the crayon I used, as I remember). The characters I liked the least, I colored with yellow hair and Flesh-colored skin (well, okay, maybe Peach). If I really disliked them, I used Apricot. And the characters I was neutral on had brown hair (different shades, if I was feeling nit-picky), or even red. Goldenrod-colored skin.

I know — it’s terrible. But in my defense, I was only four. I would be much more flexible about my crayon usage now.

Anyway, here’s the story, verbatim from Miller’s collection. I’m not sure, but I think the vegetation that he refers to might be kangkong, or swamp cabbage. It’s a tasty vegetable, if you can find it.

Enjoy.


Mangita and Larina

This is a tale told in the lake district of Luzon. At times of rain or in winter the waters of the Laguna de Bai rise and detach from the banks a peculiar vegetation that resembles lettuce. These plants, which float for months down the Pasig River, gave rise, no doubt, to the story.

Many years ago there lived on the banks of the Laguna de Bai a poor fisherman whose wife had died, leaving him two beautiful daughters named Mangita and Larina.

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Not Quite Ghost Stories

October. The blogosphere is blooming with reviews of ghost stories, and personal anecdotes of real-life spooky encounters. Why not get in the spirit? (Sorry. That pun was an accident — honest!)

English: Cover of the pulp magazine Ghost Stor...

English: Cover of the pulp magazine Ghost Stories (October 1928, vol. 5, no. 4). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, I gave out the closest I have to a real life ghost story when I first started this blog. But here it is again.

After my father-in-law passed away, my husband brought home one of his Dad’s old tripods, which ended up in the back of my car. This happened to me soon after, while I was on my way to a dance class.

Then I felt what I thought was a tap on my shoulder. By reflex, I turned, though of course there was no one else in the car. I saw nothing but my braid (I have long, heavy hair, which I wear braided when I dance). It was caught in the shoulder harness of my seat belt. It disentangled itself as my head turned, and fell with a thump on my shoulder.

I thought of my father-in-law.

“He’ll come back to visit,” my sister told me, when I’d called her with the news. “Lola [my grandmother] came to visit us after she died. Didn’t she visit you?”

Um, no. I don’t think so. There is a family tradition of visitations from the dead, on both my mother’s and my father’s side, and my sister is supposed to be “the psychic one”, so if Lola would visit anyone, I suppose it would be Isabel. I don’t believe these stories, really, though I am romantic enough to wish that I did. This probably explains my taste in literature.

But, still, at that moment under the Coke sign, I thought of my father-in-law….

I like to imagine that he was taking one last look around his old neighborhoods, before moving to the next place, riding along with his tripod like a witch rides a broomstick. But of course, it’s more likely a mere coincidence, the intersection of my hair, my seat belt, and my nostalgia.

Still, it makes a good story, doesn’t it?

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The Scent of Old Book

In search of something to read this fine Sunday afternoon, I picked up a book I bought for five dollars the other weekend, a hopefully-not-too dry Anthropology collection from forty-five years ago. Opening it up to a random page, I found that familiar, but increasingly rare fragrance: the scent of old book.

BookPhoto: Nina Zumel

I don’t know how to describe the smell, it’s just — old book. My lack of descriptive power tells you all you need to know about why I don’t make my living as a creative writer. What can I say? It smells good. It’s a little bit chemical, a little bit dusty. It smells like old paper, old good paper. Old letters smell like that, too. Old newspaper clippings, I think, don’t.

It smells like my grandmother, too, like the smell of her clothes folded neatly and tucked into her dresser way back when I was little, and she still lived with us. It’s the smell of the drawer of her bedside table, filled with her rosary and novena booklets, prayer cards and usually a romance novel.

Some of my mother’s clothes had that smell, clothes she had in the Philippines. Little peach dresses and beautiful, translucent camisa blouses, or baro, with their elaborate embroidery. I used to try the camisas on, hoping for a chance to wear them some day. I don’t think I ever did.

Baro 002 002The shawl-like lace blouses are camisas like my mother’s. Hers were made of embroidered material like the shirts on the right.
The top blouse is made of jusi (silk now, but originally banana fiber); the bottom one is made of piña (fiber from pineapple leaves).

I remember being with a friend a few years ago, as she unpacked a box of goodies sent over by relatives in Punjab. The box was filled with the 2-meter-or-so long bright colorful stoles called dupattas, along with boxes of bangles and packets of bindis, parandis for our hair. I lifted out a multicolored tie-dyed dupatta and waved it open.

“Smells like India,” another friend commented. I had been thinking it smelled like the Philippines. It was that smell.

P1000635Photo: Nina Zumel

I used to think of it as the smell as mothballs, I guess because of my grandmother. But it can’t be that, because why would books smell of mothballs? It isn’t India, it isn’t the Philippines. Or I should say, it isn’t only India, and not just the Philippines. It’s the smell of Somewhere Else.

And it’s also the scent of memories.


UPDATE: Welcome to all of you who are visiting via Freshly Pressed! I hope you like what you see. Thanks again to the WordPress editors for choosing this post to be featured.

On Bookmarks, and Memories

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Bookmarks. What do you use for bookmarks? I’m not one of those people who is appalled at the idea of dog-earing a page, but if I have the choice, I try to use a bookmark. Reshelving all our books this past week, I’ve noticed all the ragged little bits of stuff peeking out of this volume and that one. Bits of envelope, pieces of napkin, lots and lots of Post-Its, the receipt for the book itself, often with the date — it’s sobering to see how long ago I bought some of my books, especially the ones I haven’t finished yet. I’ve found old shopping lists, those annoying coupons that are always stuck in the middle of magazines (and when’s the last time I subscribed to a magazine?), and more than a few ghosts of bookstores past. I posted one of these ghosts a few days ago; since then I’ve found many more.

These are mostly my bookmarks (or my husband’s), and therefore my memories. Some of them are stowaways from used bookstore purchases. I used to save the things I found in used books, but I’ve lost them all now. It’s too bad; imagining the story behind these found objects is part of the fun of a used book.

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Help A Reader Out: Stories That Have Escaped Me

There’s a site I used to drop by occasionally called Smart Bitches, Trashy Books; it’s a blog about romance novels, written by two witty and eloquent women, and read by many women who seem to be equally witty. I don’t read romance novels, so much of the discussion went over my head, but the humor (and the snark) in their book reviews was fun to read.

They have a recurring feature called “Help a Bitch Out”: readers write in with vague recollections of novels that they’d read sometime in the hazy past. Other readers try to recall the title and author of the novel for them.

They seem to have a pretty good hit rate. The descriptions sound something like, “I don’t remember the title or the author. It might have been a Harlequin, but I’m not sure. I read it sometime between 1990 and 2000, though it could have been published much earlier than that. It’s set in Scotland (or maybe Ireland?); the heroine’s fiance runs away with her best friend, who was also engaged. The heroine marries her best friend’s ex so she can snag an apartment that can only be rented to married couples and he goes along with it because he doesn’t want to live in the house that he owned with his ex. Eventually, the marriage becomes real, but then the heroine’s best friend comes back…”

And remarkably, other readers can figure out what she’s looking for — or narrow it down to two or three possibilities.

I’m hoping that this works for ghost stories and weird fiction as well. These are stories that I’ve read — somewhere, sometime — that I’ve wanted to write about or work into a blog post, but I can’t find them again.

Of course short stories are more numerous, and most probably have lower readership per story than novels. And I don’t have as many readers as the Smart Bitches do. But here goes. I haven’t the foggiest idea of the title or author of any of these stories.

MelkOP
Photo: Nina Zumel

The House Haunted Before the Fact: I think this is set in the English countryside, early in the Twentieth century (but late enough that cars were somewhat common for the upper middle class). An old house has a reputation for being haunted, but no one remembers why, and only some tenants can hear the ghostly sounds. The two elderly spinsters: no. The married couple and the wife’s mother who lives with them: yes. It turns out that the house is actually waiting for the tenants who will eventually haunt it, and as it waits, it tries each current set of tenants on for size, so to speak. Involves a Mrs Robinson style triangle.

I have a strong memory of reading this on a gloomy afternoon, curled up on the living room couch. I feel like I read it on an ereader (which suggests something I found on Project Gutenberg), but I can’t find it in my ebook collection. Nor can I find it in any of the print anthologies I have to hand (most of my books are still in boxes).

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The Vampire, Philip Burne-Jones (1897)
Image: Wikipedia

Snow White, the Vampire Succubus: Told from the stepmother’s point of view. Snow White is a blood sucking succubus, so innocent-looking that she fools everyone. The stepmother, naturally, is innocent (though she is a “witch” of the mananambal type). Snow’s father is a victim, and the Prince is a necrophiliac. Stepmother wants to save the countryside from this young-girl monster. But history is written by the victors, or at least, the ones with better PR.

It’s not Angela Carter (That’s “The Snow Child”, which is quite good, and to my mind, quite dark). I read this in print, and I have a vague memory that the collection it was in had something to do with Neil Gaiman. Whether he compiled it or wrote the foreword to it, or just had a story in it, I don’t remember.

FogBW
Photo: Nina Zumel

The Fog brings our Angry Ancestors: Specifically, the fog that rolls unseasonably into San Francisco is the manifestation of the angry ancestors of that city’s Chinese immigrants. The fog comes when their descendants displease them. I so want this to be a real folktale or piece of Californiana, but I can’t find it in any of my California folktale collections or California short story collections. The closest I can find is a Dark Horse graphic novel that was sold as co-branded promotional material (is that the right term?) when John Carpenter’s The Fog was remade in 2005. The graphic novel (also called The Fog) is the prequel to the two movies; it tells the stories of the Chinese villagers who caused the original curse that drives the plot of each of the movies, and what became of them.

So that mystery might be solved, but not in a satisfying way.

That’s it. Does anyone out there have any idea who wrote the stories I’m talking about, or what they’re called? How about you? Are there stories or novels that you read, and wish you could reread — if only you could remember what they were?

Of Eggs, and Hummingbirds

I went to Catholic school from 6th grade until the end of high school. Sister Stephanie Ann was my 6th grade teacher. She was an old school nun: black wimple, blue knee length skirt with matching cardigan sweater, sensible rubber-soled shoes, Polish accent. To my sixth grade self, she seemed a million years old, though I suppose she was only in her early fifties or so.

There was nothing gentle or maternal about Sr. Stephanie Ann (I’ve never met a nun who embodied either of those qualities). She was sarcastic, she was cranky, and she was the master of the bon mot. My personal favorite: “Jesus commanded me to love you; he didn’t say anything about me having to like you.” I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but in retrospect, I like her a lot.

Soft boiled egg with black lava salt from hawaii

Soft boiled egg with black lava salt from hawaii (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I thought of her today — of one specific moment of my time in her class. It was lunchtime, and it was raining. Sister happened to sit down at a table near my desk, with her lunch: an apple, and a boiled egg. She unwrapped her egg and took a bite, eyes closed. Upon finishing the bite, she opened her eyes. She looked at the egg, and then she looked at me, and said:

You can’t eat an egg and not believe in God.

Well, of course, you can. But I think even a non-believer can appreciate the beauty of that statement. The egg, that perfect little packet of protein, that chicken in the bubble of the subjunctive, that gold and white ellipsoid, the ordinary, everyday miracle that waits for us each time we walk into the supermarket, a dozen to the carton in the refrigerated section.

Hummingbird in Golden Gate Park
Photo: Shayne Kaye, Flickr/Creative Commons

I remembered that incident as I ate lunch today, sitting out on the patio of my apartment on this beautiful San Francisco spring day. A hummingbird zipped into the yard, and hovered in the air above my husband and me, just staring. It must have decided we were no threat; it zipped away to the other corner of the yard, where the lemon tree blooms. It flitted from blossom to blossom to feed, never landing. It was no bigger than the young fruit already on the branches. Its blue-green wings made a buzzy-hummy sound as it flew; I could hear it faintly from where I sat. It sounded like bees. Blue-green, iridescent bees.

“They’re like feathered insects,” my husband said. It’s true.

You can’t watch a hummingbird and not believe in natural selection.

That really doesn’t have the same ring to it as Sr. Stephanie Ann’s words. But I think it’s just as beautiful.

Losing Melanin

Hair
Photo: John Mount

“You don’t dye your hair, do you?”

I don’t know where that question came from. I had been sitting at the kitchen counter, transcribing my parents’ ghost stories over toast and my morning coffee, when my mother popped that on me.

“Yup. For years, now.”

“Really?!?”

She sounded so shocked that I had to replay the question in my mind. She asked me if I dye my hair, right? Not if I strip for a living?

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The Soul that Swam

I almost didn’t post this one. It’s a classic near-death story, so classic it verges on stereotypical. It does have a few unusual details, though, so I just decided to go ahead.

PhilippineOcean
Photo: John Mount

“This happened to my father, your lolo, when he was a young man, doing missionary work,” Dad said. “He had been assigned to a parish in Mindanao — Cagayan de Oro.”

I’m a bit hazy as to what “missionary work” means in this context. My grandfather was a priest who belonged to the Philippine Independent, or Aglipayan, Church. The church was founded as a reaction to the Spanish-dominated Catholic hierarchy, which slighted native Filipino clergy and churchgoers. Its nationalistic position attracted a lot of converts.

So I would imagine that my grandfather’s missionary work entailed ministering to an Aglipayan parish, one similar to the Roman Catholic parish that his parishioners had abandoned. Mindanao has a relatively large Muslim population as well; it’s possible that he also proselytized.

At any rate, from what my father describes, his father had many of the duties of a parish priest: saying Mass, visiting members of his congregation, managing the day to day activities of the church.

“One night, he came home quite late in the evening, after visiting with a sick parishioner. As he entered his house, a large black moth flew at him. He killed it. Then he finished up for the day, and went to bed.”

“When he fell asleep, he dreamt that he died.”

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