Potential hauntings

This is a newsletter by Haley E.D. Houseman, ostensibly but not always full of nature writing. Thanks for your support, always, whenever. If you like this newsletter, please feel free to forward and share. And you can always say hi directly at @hedhouseman.



Everyone I know has in turn and in waves been obsessed with hauntings. Horror in fiction, ghostly apparitions in movies, bones clattering in the hallways of books on our shelves. We love to be haunted, to be reminded of the Big Scare, memento mori style. Being haunted can horrible, but it is not quite lonely, and the right kind of haunting can be quite helpful if you’re into that sort of thing. I pretty much only get into the unseen when I have to unpack the cultural baggage of being raised Catholic, which I find a lightly embarrassing and yet useful framework, an experience not unlike knowing how to make something without a recipe and then somehow fucking it up on execution. The memories have false doors and stairways to nowhere and surprisingly soft boards in the floor. You start with a bit of prayer and end up with your foot through it, think of a saint and get half a random fact, chase a bible passage around a corner and find there’s nothing there.

My reading right now happens to be full of ghosts. I will spared you the sci-fi space necromancy and stick to the relevant books that are full of ghosts and hauntings. I’m thinking particularly of Timothy Morton’s HumanKind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People, which I have been dipping in and out of for three months at least. It’s spectrality and seeming all tied up with being and praxis and politics. I am halfway through the book, and the only thing I can fully digest is that the paper is absolutely haunted by the trees that died to make it, trees that have yet to appear in any meaningful way in this book of ecology and political theory I am trying very hard to understand. I keep at it because I suspect the book is quite good, and I think about what is written in it quite a bit. I do also think I am not quite bright enough to get down with it, and that knowledge is a bit of its own reward. I have a hairshirt streak that misses Confession and loves feeling too thick to understand the material.

I’m particularly obsessed today because it is the most haunted day of my personal cultural calendar; it is hard to be a lapsed Catholic and make it through Holy Week without a few ghost stories. Good Friday marks the day that Jesus hung on the cross, and until Sunday, he’s just a guy who died, and his unbelieving friends are very sad, and the whole streak of days is a great one for wallowing in miserable inevitabilities that you cannot escape. I am writing this at the hour I would usually be sitting in lightly enforced stillness and silence at my mother’s house. She’s not particularly far away, just an hour, she’s likely making ravioli and face masks for the fire department, soon she’ll put Jesus Christ Superstar on the record player like she always does on Holy Week. Instead, I haven’t seen her in a month, not since we sat across the dining room table anxiously putting together a trip itinerary and translating messages into Italian to our cousins.

It probably bears stating I don’t believe in proper ghosts, not the kinds that other people believe in, that show up to visit you for good or ill. If the Church couldn’t get me after 18 years of catechism, it feels unlikely I’ll develop a particular faith in anything that’s supposed to resurrect. I have not seen a ghost, and as Thomas knows seeing is believing, and in between, there’s quite a lot of wiggle room of folks trying to poke their fingers through doubtful holes and generally carrying on about the quantity or lack of proof. It’s not quite that I don’t know how to have faith; I believe in the blue of robin’s eggs though I’ve never, ever seen one, I have some faith in our collective ability to change and transcend and be better than we have been even though it currently feels impossible. Hauntings of any kind require a bit of faith, in that they require a bit of belief in something beyond the light hitting our corneas and the nerve endings in our fingers.

Good Friday for me is always haunted by what might have been, shades of possible pasts and futures and not a small number of other presents. It used to be this day was made spooky by the nearness of a person that I could have been if I had instead chosen to get Confirmed, instead of showing up in a different church, for a different kind of ceremony, to tell a room full of people that I was pretty sure I didn’t believe in God. When that hurt healed, it was haunted by a desire that I indulged and denied in turn, to go to Mass even when it felt like a dry old skin. I’ve always liked the darker services, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday among them. I went to both last year and cried in the back pew. I went to neither this year and felt very little about it, aside from a slightly feral desire to sing in a room with other people where I knew all the songs without thinking and was not in the least made conspicuous by my participation or seriousness.

This year I will go to the woods alone in the rain and I will look at the flooded creek. I will get very little done at work because I am deeply distracted by all the ghosts of all the things that were supposed to happen between March and June, like a trip to Italy or a cousin’s wedding or my 15th anniversary or something vaguely unplanned to celebrate my 30th birthday somewhere wide and new. For now I am painting my nails to look like robin’s eggs and wishing the sun would come out and looking at my radish sprouts. I am hoping my lemon tree with set out some new leaves. I will come and see when my partner points out the brightness of a sitting cardinal, and I will wonder about money and jobs. I will think about mushrooms more than any particularly sane person, but then again who is sane any more? I am flushes of angry and blue and haunted every day, flecked with joy and fragile and full of a life that I cannot really touch right now. I will pick myself up and try again next week, as we all roll away our rocks and send them back up a hill if we can. I will forgive myself for not getting it right, because who can really do the calculus right now, counting up choices?