Ghosts We Know

In high school courses I teach, we read about ghosts in short stories and plays, and students sometimes ask me why we do this. When I return the favor and ask them what they think, we often have some interesting discussions about the soul, spirituality, and self-knowledge.

Truly, literary ghosts are extremely important if we understand their metaphorical meaning. 

First, the ghosts we know are often really–ourselves. Great literature reveals the human condition; it shows us how to rise above our weaknesses, mistakes, and sins, and what happens when we don’t. Ghosts tell us about ourselves and the things that haunt us, especially our own failings. They reflect what we are thinking, deep down, underneath self-delusions, guilt, and hidden self-knowledge. For instance, when we read Macbeth, we understand that ghosts can be the creations of our own minds: they may be forbidden desires, desires which dominate us so fully that against our own consciences, we believe in them and obey them. If we give in to them, we become ghosts ourselves: shells of our former selves who cower in fright as we hide from the results of our own selfish, evil actions.

Often, ghosts are about place and space. Virginia Woolf’s story, “A Haunted House,” expresses how connected we are to the places in which we’ve lived and loved. Here the new owners of a house find mysterious ghosts whose residual experiences inspire the them to continue the love which the original couple has, it seems, extended to them through time, in this cherished home which still emanates the deep, abiding commitment of its previous owners. As we grow older we learn how important our homes and communities have been to us, and they become part of the warp and woof of our own spirits–so much so that sometimes, we find it hard to  consciously assimilate the depth and breadth of our past experiences.

Finally, ghosts reveal the spiritual nature of our existence and our connection to immortality: life which extends beyond the present. When Hamlet is presented with the ghost of his father, he is not sure if the ghost is a demonic deception, or his dead father, directing him from the beyond. Even those of us with strong religious beliefs can’t conceive exactly of what lies beyond, or how those who have died view us. While Christians are instructed not to attempt to hold seances with the dead, this doesn’t abrogate the question: what, exactly, is the relationship of those of us on earth to those who have died? And what is it like for them, in their new state? Hamlet wrestles with how he should relate to what he thinks may be his father’s spirit, and in so doing reveals the internal conflicts we all experience when we confront personal tragedies, and how we might have been responsible for them, or may be able to repair them afterwards.

Ghosts may bring forth our regrets: sorrows which challenge us to either wallow in self-pity and anguish, or to accept reality, in the recognition that it is only in embracing our situation and our own failings that we find healing, peace, and maturation. Or, perhaps ghosts will bring comfort to us: the memories of times with loved ones now gone, the times with children now grown. Whatever our personal ghosts are, reading and writing about them is a way forward to understanding ourselves, the world we live in, and the God who created us.

© Cindy C. Lange, MA
integritasacademy.com

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The Internal Journey of Frodo’s Fellowship

The Fellowship of the Ring sets the stage for the Lord of the Rings series as Frodo and his companions begin their perilous and often confusing journey, which stands in contrast to the ordered world in which they live, The Shire, in Middle Earth. This “disordered” journey is a form of entering chaos: Like King Arthur’s knights as they sally forth from Camelot, the members of The Fellowship venture far and wide to conquer evils which surround them. However, unlike the Knights of the Round Table, the members of The Fellowship recognize that as they set out to destroy evil, they also bear the potential for the destruction of the kingdom within themselves.  The Ring itself is a constant reminder to them that they must first fight their own internal selfish desires in order to save The Shire.


As a “quest” story, the novel contains elements of both classical and medieval literature. Middle Earth is a highly ordered world in which all creatures have their proper roles which are integral to the natures of the characters: an elf could no more attempt to behave like a hobbit than you or I could attempt to behave like a dog or a cat. This order is hierarchical; some creatures’ duties—and some characters’ duties– are more significant in the larger community than others; some folks are more civilized and wealthier than others. However, in this sort of society, a person with a “lower” occupation or status is not a less important person. For instance, the Innkeeper at The Sign of the Prancing Pony, Mr. Butterbur, is no less valuable than Gandalf. Rather, his role suits him and his class of creature; his job “belongs” in the fabric of the society just as much as Gandalf’s does. But Tolkien breaks free of the traditional medieval roles when he calls Frodo, that modest and insignificant hobbit, to save the kingdom.

As is also true in the King Arthur stories, Middle Earth is a place where the natural world is important and valuable. Being “good stewards” of what we are given to tend, whether it be a garden, a forest, or a river–is key, and there is a balance between the creatures’ using and respecting nature. Thus, the hobbits cut back the trees from the Old Forest at the edge of their lands, but leave the Old Forest alone in every other way. Nature is connected to many of the creatures closely, as we see with Goldberry, who, we are told, is the daughter of the River. Also, the natural world reflects the nature of the creatures who inhabit it; the hobbits’ shire is green and cozy and friendly. In Middle Earth, the physical world embodies the goodness and concreteness of reality, and this is most carried forth into the lives of the hobbits, whose liking for beer, food, gift-giving, home and companionship emphasizes their close and deep connection to the earth and world around them. The interactions which the members of The Fellowship will make with the forest and the river serve to help us understand that nature itself is being corrupted and disfigured; the hobbits are responsible for recovering both the kingdom and its environment.

As did the knights of medieval times, Frodo accepts the challenge to go forth in search of danger. Though Gandalf tells him that he should not go out of his way seek danger, the truth is that in order to make sure that the Shire is kept safe, Frodo must plunge headlong into an unknown evil, putting his life in jeopardy.  Like martyrs and war heroes, Frodo charges ahead to do the right thing despite his fear, weakness, and sinful desires. Where the quest ends he does not know; the path he must follow is also a mystery. What is clear is that Frodo and his friends choose to respond to the challenge of the quest regardless of their great personal weaknesses and fears.

©Cindy C. Lange, MA | integritasacademy.com

The American Spirit in Florida: A Review of Patrick D. Smith’s “A Land Remembered”

A Land Remembered is a uniquely American epic—set in Florida, but reminiscent of the best of the Western histories and sagas. It reflects and retells the settling of Florida, incorporating stouthearted characters who survived swamp, jungle, hurricanes, wild animals, to conquer the humid and often unfriendly Florida territory. The story also has themes redolent of the tales of Wild West: the arguments between those who want to fence the land and the earlier settlers who want the land left free and open; the fiercely independent spirits of those who dared to settle and conquer this hazardous, uncivilized land.

The tale covers 3 generations, beginning with Tobias MacIvey, the bold pioneer who first entered the Southern wilds, and continues with his son Zech and then grandson Solomon. Each man represents (and furthers) a specific era in the development of Florida. Tobias, the patriarch, is the one most in tune with nature, as with his wife and baby he attempts to survive in the free, open lands while battling the elements. His attitude towards the Native Americans is one of friendly coexistence, and when his son Zech grows up, he inherits this attitude, and falls in love with a young Seminole woman—instead of choosing between her and the white woman he marries, he loves them both, thus symbolizing the tenuous “marriage” of the two cultures, and the influence of each upon the other.

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Tobias at day’s end; Rick Powers, artist

The story also exhibits the ways in which this uncultured land, like the west, equalizes the races, as African-American ranch hand, “Frog” becomes part of the warp and woof of the MacIvey family. This primitive land, untouched by “culture,” providentially allows for all peoples to meet on a level plane, and they build the future together, rather than as master and servant. Florida is a new kind of “south.”

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Lake Kissimmee

The grandson, Sol, chooses not to live on the land, but instead becomes a real estate developer, thus introducing us to the “new” Florida we know today: a land of entrepreneurs and people who, for the most part, do not live in the agrarian and ranching culture of those white people who previously populated the land. The story begins with a flashback as Sol, aged and dying, chooses to return to the cabin of his forefathers, leaving behind the life of luxury he has led, regretful that he has not kept the values of his father and grandfather. A Land Remembered is a profoundly “American” piece of literature in every way, genuine in its telling. It pulls powerfully at the spirits of those of us who love the pioneer character, with all of its bravery, faults, and independence of mind; the spirit which created America. ⸸ 

“All I’m trying to tell you is to be strong. Don’t ever let nothing get you down. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to love, or to grieve when the thing you love is gone. Just don’t let it throw you, no matter how much it hurts.”
― Patrick D. Smith, A Land Remembered

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A young people’s version of A Land Remembered is available, and is used in many Florida schools.

©Cindy C. Lange, MA
integritasacademy.com

Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” Part I: Furrows of Fabric in Jungian Cloth

This article will be presented in two parts: the first is an interpretation of Gaiman’s book; the second will be my commentary on the book in terms of the sacramental Christian worldview.

OCEAN

In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman investigates the ways in which we interpret and assimilate events and memories, and how our ability to incorporate our past affects and determines our present understanding of our selves and the world around us. Gaiman re appropriates disparate myths and symbols in a complex manner; the unifying theme is Jungian psychology, brought to life through traditional symbols the author has synthesized. Reading Ocean is a bit like watching Christopher Nolan’s movie Memento, wherein the character and audience experience the events of his life in reverse, and each slide back into the past presents a different aspect of key events of the protagonist’s life, because we can only cope with the harsh realities of life when they are put into context with the present. In Ocean, though, we are left not solely with the conclusion to a specific story, but rather, the working out of a theory as to how our minds and memories adapt as we grow up and learn about evil in the world and the failings of those we love. It is a book about how we help ourselves understand the vagaries of existence.

The plot revolves around an unnamed artist’s return to his family home in the British countryside which jettisons us into a flashback; our artist is a bookish boy, aged 7, in the 1960s, alienated in his life with his parents and sister, none of whom are sympathetic to his sensitive, artistic nature. Not exactly original—but Gaiman uses the boy’s sense of disjointedness, of not belonging, to introduce the broader theme of the individual’s psychological journey into self integration. Carl Jung posits that the self can only become whole by assimilating past experiences with personal values and farmhousedesires. In Ocean, the artist must recall his past in order to incorporate his understanding of painful memories into who he is now. (Though the boy is only 7 years old, that number is probably symbolic; his internal conflicts are those of an adolescent who is trying to “complete” himself and come to an adult understanding of the world.) The book investigates the traumatic events which led to the boy’s entrance into adulthood, and therefore, full personhood, but ultimately, we learn that he has returned many times to the ocean; i.e., we all must go back to revisit our memories periodically if we are to continue the process of understanding who we are, and in order that we may make sense of our personal “worlds” within the context of our larger reality.

Ocean is a full blown myth which explores our subconscious and conscious motivations and memories; Gaiman questions the validity of our recollections while at the same time affirming the importance of them as the fabric by which we know ourselves. However–and this is the crucial conflict in the book–we cannot directly access ourURSULA painful experiences–the “raw” data–without experiencing a disintegration of the self; we can only accept and integrate major changes in our lives through symbols and archetypes,  which facilitate the integration of these occurrences and memories into the “self.”

Jung’s anima or animus is the vehicle through which experiences are sorted, interpreted, and assimilated into the self, and in Ocean, the Hempstock family, and particularly Lettie, play that role. The name Hempstock points the reader clearly in the direction of alternative understandings of reality, since the women, like a drug, help him access hidden recesses of the mind. If the boy allows them to, the Hempstock anima will lead him into fully integrating all of his experiences, both negative and positive. Lettie, her mother and grandmother are guides to the personal unconscious. As the young boy’s personal anima, Lettie is his Beatrice, his psychological guide.

The boy initially meets the Hempstock women because he and his father discover the body of a man they know who has committed suicide in their family car–down the lane. The three women take the boy through the perilous waters of coming adulthood, self-understanding and acceptance of reality. They give him safe harbor–a psychological safe “place” which is apart from his increasingly unpleasant and unacceptable home life. They feed him comfort food, a stark contrast to the “burned toast” of his home, and in their role as anima they bring maternal support, teaching him psychological boundaries, “dressing” him in the clothes of his anima— the feminine (opposite) side of his self which must be unearthed and appropriated in order for him to “find” himself.

maidenmothercrone

Throughout the book, Lettie Hempstock asserts that she will keep the boy safe, and it is only when he lets go of her hand while traveling on her land that his foot is invaded by the “wormhole” that allows Ursula Monkton into his world. A cursory reading might seem to  indicate that Ursula is evil personified, but that is not the case: several times, Lettie and her relatives state that Ursula must be “contained,”and “sent home,” not destroyed. She must be “put in her place”–categorized and restrained– but the women will not confirm that she is evil, and even assert that she is just doing what she was created to do. When the boy lets go of Lettie’s hand during their initial confrontation with Ursula, he is allowing his raw memories to invade his consciousness; this is why he asserts over and over that it is “his fault” that Ursula has appeared. His recollections will only be put into context when Old Mrs. Hempstock is able to take a needle, dig deeply into his foot, extract the invader, and close the hole up–after which Ursula will soon lose her power. Whatever ways in which he has ignored his anima,  the “other side” of his soul, have caused destructive, unprocessed memories to invade and poison him. Only through excising such raw memories can he/we have unity and understanding of “self.”

While Lettie’s farm contains the friendly pond she calls an ocean, and it is a place of solace, the boy’s home down the lane is inhabited by a family that expresses no love, and presents meals of burned toast which his father alone cooks.  In his home, water becomes a force of destruction when his father, in a rage, nearly drowns the boy in the bathtub in reaction to his son’s lack of acceptance of Ursula as nanny and apparently, as the father’s lover. This 30gaimanDevent may or may not have occurred, but the symbolism of it is key: the boy’s emotional break with his father, his realization that his father is fallible, signifies the boy’s entrance into the adult world. He has been “baptized” in the painful waters of recognizing that his parents, who have been his refuge, are imperfect, and will not always be able to guide and protect him. The “fabric” of his childhood has been ripped apart, leaving him afraid and vulnerable, but in accepting the help of the Hempstocks, he will eventually come to terms with reality.

When Lettie first takes the boy for a walk on her farm, they meet the piece of ugly canvas fabric which is Ursula, waiting to be “set free” to enter the boy’s world. Because he lets go of Lettie’s hand, the fabric is able to enter into the sole of his foot. Lettie has used a divining rod, and the two of them have found “something brown and furry, but flat, like a huge rug, flapping and curling at the edges, and, at the front of the rug, a mouth, filled with dozens of tiny sharp teeth, facing down” (38). They immediately see a manta wolf, and Lettie says they have “gone too far out”–they are past the bounds where the boy’s psyche can integrate the dangerous events into his memory safely. This is when he lets go of Lettie’s hand, and the fabric of Ursula reveals herself and invades him and his world.

The middle section of the book consists of Ursula’s ripping apart the fabric of his family in a series of gripping and painful events that leave the reader drained as Ursula emotionally abuses the boy and locks him in his room. As he writes after seeing Ursula and his father embracing, “My parents were a unit, inviolate . . . the train of my life had jumped the rails and headed off across the fields and was coming down the lane with me, then” (80). He escapes down the drainpipe and makes it to the Hempstock farm–to the safe “place” in his mind–and there his anima (the Hempstocks) treats him to a warm bath–a stark contrast to the life-threatening, cold dunking his father has just given him. It is at this time that Old Mrs. Hempstock pulls the wormhole out of him.

But we soon discover that part of the path Ursula has used has inexplicably gone to his chest–he can feel it there. This never leaves him, even when Ursula is banished, because the blithe innocence of his childhood cannot return. Instead, he must learn as he grows to adjust his view of reality by incorporating aspects of the painful until they no longer dominate him.

The last section of the book is a battle wherein Ursula attempts to stay, and the boy must decide to choose whether or not to live in the protection of the “fairy ring” of self-assimilation. It’s worth a read to find out the conclusion, if you like myths, and Neil Gaiman. Not recommended for children.

Neil Gaiman:

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(Picture of Ursula is from facebook.com/LinkLovesColouring)

Cindy C. Lange, MA
http://www.integritasacademy.com

Sharman’s Legacy

book-coffee-Sharman grew into womanhood with the grace so characteristic of her; it was a given that nature would beautify those startling cheeks and bestow regal assurance upon her tall, intelligent personage. I recall the first time I ever met her: poised eagerly over a first edition of Bleak House, china teacup in hand, she expounded upon the glories of British literature, pausing periodically to brush a curtain of light brown hair away from her face or to replenish her chronically empty cup. A hold-over from the romantic sixties, she was–the 1860s, that is. Having just returned to college from a six week tour of Europe, she was full of Dickens, Stratford-upon-Avon, the Tower of London–anything English. Yes, Italy and France were there–in Italy the men pinched, in France the waiters were rude–but England, ah, England LIVED! Her adoration was infectious, and my own latent anglophilia stirred and expanded, giving me a love for literature–and life–that I had never before known.

Her energy came in spurts and died as quickly as it began. She never seemed to notice how unusual her impulsive behavior was; one minute we might be engrossed in the Victorian essayists, the next we were driving miles to find the perfect hill from which to observe a winter sunset. Once home she would find herself exhausted and spent, and invariably would excuse herself to go and rest. She existed in a rich, overflowing, yet separate sphere, and when she withdrew, it was as if she closed the pages of the book and said, “No more for now.” I always let the cover fall without interference so that she would open the book again. We often took walks in the hills to relieve the strain of studying, and Sharman walked with her entire being. She hungrily absorbed the world around her, taking the birds, flowers and sky unto herself in the manner of a beggar at a feast. Her capacity for appreciation was infinite. Yet, her mood swings were dramatic. I never knew how I would find her–on one occasion, with no apparent provocation, she began contemplating the harshness of life Sharman-Woolf-bagand the injustices of the world, then just as quickly fell into an ecstasy over a recording of Bach fugues we overheard while leaving our rooms.

The entire time I knew her, Sharman never once wore a pair of pants. At first she wore the long “Victorian” dresses popular at the time; she would often place a fresh flower in her long, wavy hair. As time went on, she replaced these items with soft silky blouses and elegant skirts and dresses, and one momentous day the flowing hair vanished; a stylish above-the-shoulders cut had taken its place. From that day on, her perceptive grey eyes became even more intriguing and her confident, knowledgeable lips became alluring and sophisticated.

Sharman often made weekend trips of unknown purpose: to me she would explain that she had decided to fly home at the last minute; curiously, towards others she was more silent. There was something mysterious about her flurried journeys, and she was even more a focus of interest in our little dormitory when she was gone than when she was present. But I defended, excused and protected her extravagant absences; I guarded her privacy as fiercely as she did and although I too wondered where she went (and why), I set that aside in favor of the greater wonder of knowing her friendship.

MCHAPELy final vision of Sharman remains intact: in front of the small, white wooden chapel she stands, clasping her treasured bookbag–the one displaying Virginia Woolf’s stark, lonely face. Her expressive body leans against the wisteria covered picket fence and that radiant smile emanates, so knowing and self-confident. None of us knew then that she was dying–but she did, of course. That her life was so brief is still unfathomable and that she died on the day she was to have been married was characteristic. She left her vivid legacy with those of us who were graced by her evanescent and memorable life. She is with me yet, her soul touching mine, and when I open a book I feel her presence and see her–teacup in hand, eyes alight–reaching for her own copy, which is most assuredly a first edition.

Cindy C. Lange
http://www.integritasacademy.com