A good friend and I tend to get balls-deep via text (notable because I’m very impatient with phone-typing). A couple weeks back she told me she was having a “thin place” around her romantic past—within a handful of days a selection of exes were making various reappearances, not in dramatic torch-holding, getting-back-together ways, but as gentle phantoms paying mild visitations. I enjoy when women get all bluebearded like men do, gathering their “conquests” into a relationship chamber to be regarded not as exploded suns, but rather examined as collected reflecting-back facets of one’s own mirrored self (a bit o' purple prose for you there—jaysus). I appreciated this subject (as opposed to object) vibe in my friend’s narrativizing, and beyond that I was struck by her turn of phrase: “thin place.”
Erudite batch that she is she’d picked it up from an essay called (you guessed it) "Thin Places" by Jordan Kisner, which is mostly about OCD and ego boundary confusion (and is in and of itself fascinating), but also touches on the Celtic idea that "Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places the distance is even smaller.” Kisner expounds:
In thin places, the folklore goes, the barrier between the physical world and the spiritual world wears thin and becomes porous. Invisible things, like music or love or dead people or God, might become visible there, or if they don’t become visible they become so present and tangible that it doesn’t matter. Distinctions between you and not-you, real and unreal, worldly and otherworldly, fall away.
I just read a bunch of ghost stories for the annual Jezebel true scary stories contest, and thank god I don’t think I’m generally too sensitive to otherworldly vibe-age, but since 'tis the season here’s my most notable ghost experience:
This was years back in my very early twenties. My ex lived in a non-profit co-op shared-housing sitch in a hulking old home in North Oakland; built in 1904 it was on a large corner lot with a huge basement, and had generous amount of public space on its first floor as well as a small bedroom off the kitchen that had been the old servants’ quarters. There was a picture-perfect stained-glassed front staircase as well as a second back set of stairs that was much narrower and led from the kitchen to the next level.
The second story had four bedrooms as I recall (one of which had a tiny “balcony” over the front porch), and another set of stairs leading up to a fourth level (if you count the basement)—a massive attic.
This top floor was divided up into two rooms with a small sitting area (complete with a window seat) at the top of landing separating the two. Off to one side was a door to a small bedroom where one of the house’s original co-op occupants/board members would stay when she was in the East Bay, which the rest of the time was vacant or used as a guest room. Off to the other side of the landing was the door to a second enormous bedroom, at least two-thirds the size of the house’s footprint, with low slanted ceilings and various nooks and sections.
When I had started dating my ex he was living on the second floor in the nicest room, roomy with three closets and a large bay window that looked directly into the backyard’s little redwood grove (they also had an insane veggie garden—and don’t even get me started on the back porch roofed with vine and the pomegranate tree outside the kitchen window). I really loved that room, and the house with its gracefully grand but life-oriented layout, its built-ins and attention to details of both form and function. Though it wasn’t really in the spirit of the communal idea behind the co-op, and though I actually loved the omnipresent scent of good hippie cooking and the sloppy canning and bowls of papered tomatillos on the kitchen table, I often played a mental game envisioning the space not as a perennially filthy hippy zone, but as a restored single-family home, its bicycle-inflicted wall-holes patched, its many wooden surfaces scoured, buffed, and polished to a warm sheen. It was such a cool house. It was also, according to many of its hippie-dippy dwellers over the decades, haunted, but I thankfully I didn’t overmuch pick up on that.
Until my ex moved up to the attic. I’d been doing a six-month study-abroad across the pond, and in the meantime the couple who’d lived in the large attic room had moved out, and my ex had relocated to their space with the vague notion of us occupying it together, though I was practically in a domestic partnership with my bff and travel-buddy Eisen and had no intention of not roomie-ing with her again.
Right away upon my return I felt I preferred the downstairs room, though the new room was impressively massive and objectively romantic. The light wasn’t as good though; they added skylights at one point, but it still had a lot of shadowy corners and a general murkiness. I didn’t like to be up there alone. The creepiest area by far was the nook farthest from the door, that had a tiny little dormer window. Multiple visitors to the room (among them my ex’s mom, my mom, and sister Maddy) peeping that corner of the room felt a chill come over them—my ex’s mom actually exclaimed, “Whoa! What was that?!”
The woman half of the couple who’d previously occupied the attic room had set up her typewriter in there and made it her “writing room,” and my ex, undeterred by the strange energy, opted to make it his curtained-off meditation zone, with the intention of cannibalizing whatever juju powers might be. (He also at some point, unbeknownst to me, found a small tombstone in the backyard and perversely placed it in his meditation zone with other “power objects” he’d collected.)
While I was in Europe he had arranged the room so the bed was in the attic section farthest from the door, alongside the creepy cubby. Feng-shui-wise it was the optimal layout, but I didn’t like it and refused to sleep on the nook side of the bed. It might have been all in my head, but there was such a feeling of presence there, and I hated sleeping by its dark lurk.
It might have been a coincidence (and there was other stuff happening around trust and toeing the cheating line and journal-reading and email-hacking), but we were fighting a lot. Really insane telenovela fighting—it makes me feel strange to recall the hysterical nature of it. One night as we were trying to get to sleep the sense of a malevolent presence above the bed was so undeniably chokingly terrifying that my ex yelled, “Let’s get the fuck out of here!” We slept instead on a grubby pull-out couch downstairs, a tremendous relief.
It was probably around then that I finally prevailed that the furniture should be rearranged. We placed the bed by the door, farthest from the ghost zone, and my ex put his long desk and a dresser where the bed had been. The bed was now directionally flipped, but I still insisted on sleeping on the side farthest from the creepy cubby, closest to the door. Stuff was a little better, but it wasn’t great. Lights that had been off when we’d conked were on when we woke up. It still wasn’t the coziest vibe-age.
The most striking happening in this whole little haunting occurred one night during the classic witching hours. We were both deeply asleep. My ex had his iPod speakers with his iPod in its dock on the dresser by the nook. He had lots of stuff on his iPod—music, probably some language tapes, as well as a recording of a guided Yoga Nidra (sleep yoga) meditation—a “you’re getting verrry verrry relaxed” kind of thing. So, we’re dead asleep, and then suddenly around two in the morning the iPod turns on and plays from the aforementioned Yoga Nidra meditation: “Corpse pose. Lay still like a corpse.” And then turns back off. We were both electrically bolt-upright in bed wtf-ing hard at this instruction to savasana.
Not too long after (I could be mixing up the timeline, but I’m going proceed thusly so as to maintain a smoothly spooky ghost story progression) the house hired a priestess of Santería to come by and diagnose the scene. After touring the house she said that there were three spirits in the house: an infant, a bad spirit (people over the decades doing laundry in the basement had sensed a voice screaming at them to “GET OUT!”), and the spirit of a woman whose name began with a “J,” who had a message for someone named “Sunny.”
An intermission here for a personal aside: my brushes with psychics have been very few and far between, and, though extremely involuntary (I don’t want to “know” or be influenced, whichever it is), they’ve lodged themselves in my psyche like stubborn burrs. That night, post-consultation and sage-ing, the Saneterían witch sat down with the household and wine around a backyard bonfire. At one point she leaned over to me and said that I had a beautiful protective spirit, like a fairy, hovering above me. It was a lovely idea, one that I’ve held onto, but beyond the niceness it felt almost true. Not the fairy part so much, but the feeling of having a benevolent companion, of being watched over, of being loved.
My other (secondhand) encounter with a psychic also came via my ex. He would go on an annual month-long meditation retreats to Hawaii, and one of the practitioners in his group was psychic. One year the psychic shared with my ex some informal insights—there were a lot of things, but here’s what I remember: my ex and I weren’t life-mates—not a bombshell. We’d have some problems in February of that year, but would get past them; we did indeed break up and then reunite. He said that he saw my ex holding a baby boy that looked like him in couple years. My ex thought this meant he’d have a kid by then, but as it turned out his sister had a son who is my ex’s spitting image.
About me specifically he said that I was terrified of being hurt by my ex. This was painfully true—I didn’t trust him to behave consistently lovingly, or even to be “in love” with me all the time when he went into what I called “emotional shutdown mode.” I was incapable of relaxing into vulnerability, and would in my heart “clos[e] the ranks and…doubl[e] back” as a matter of course. This insight into my fear though, told to my ex, made me feel so exposed, so powerless, so weak. Today however I can appreciate the absolute truth of it.
Finally, the psychic said that I was very creative, but that I wasn’t tapped into it at that time. I tucked that silver lining into my back pocket, hoped it was accurate that I wouldn’t always feel so frozen. It gave me an extra jolt of faith that there would be (good) life after the death of my relationship.
Back to the other ghost story, and the Santerían priestess’s bit about “J” and Sunny—Sunny had been an occupant of the house in the seventies or eighties who was still in contact with members of the board. A woman named Janelle had lived in the house at the same time, in the attic room. She was a geologist I think, and had died suddenly and before her time (in her forties) of a brain aneurysm in the attic. So yeah. My ex made a little altar for her outside the room in the sitting area on the landing, and told her all the things you tell ghosts—we honor you, but we’re here now, please leave us to live, find peace. As I recall it kind of worked.
So, back to the “thin places” idea: I don’t know if I’m clairvoyant enough to identify them. Tomales Bay gives me pause.
So too did a spot encountered recently on Rama’s and my anniversary road trip up to Oregon and back. We were arriving at our campground for the night—Elk Prairie Campground in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park—just as dusk was beginning to fall. We were anxious to select a tree-canopied spot (as it was likely to rain) and get our tent up before it was too dark, but I begged Rama to pull over so I could snap some pics of (and he of me in) the flabbergastingly gorgeous mist-filling meadow.
Walking from him into the meadow for shots I felt something—(to lift from my own insta caption) a gathering of presence or presences. Not ominous, not necessarily benevolent either.
That night at the campfire, post dinner, Rama was reading aloud the Prairie Creek Redwoods brochure while I tried to comb through my wildly snarled, faucet-wetted hair. He read aloud this section:
In 1850, when gold was found near today’s Fern Canyon, the Yurok people were overwhelmed by the influx of settlers. Conflict over the land took many forms. The native people were hunted down; any who survived the attacks were forced onto reservations. Newly introduced diseases further decimated their numbers.
Just then the lid came off our cast-iron dutch-oven (which was housing leftover tacos on the fire-pit’s grate) and clattered to the ground. Rama walked over to pick it up, and as we were speculating about the curious timing of the lid’s fall in terms of our reading material, coupled with the previous ghost-vibes in the meadow, wondering if perhaps there could be some Native American spirit stuff going on? a log cleaved itself in the fire. We both felt pretty whoa about it, and Rama, though he is one of the more literal people I've known, surprised me by improvising a small spontaneous ritual where he took the little ball of hair I’d combed out and (despite my warnings about the smell of burnt hair as well as reservations about the general shoal-ness) said a little prayer and buried it in the fire.
This morning writing this I went over the events with Rama again to corroborate my memories, and he told me that that night after I’d crashed out and he was taking care of the final clean-up/hanging with the fire, he had seen in the coals what looked like the outline of a bear. He kept watching it, and then right where the eye would be there appeared an orange pinhole of light that vanished as soon he went for his camera. Whatever else that is, it's elegant, and it feels like loss.
So “thin places”—that’s about space, and whenever we talk about space we must also speak of time. Autumn in many cultures is regarded a charged time. The veil is “thin,” raised even at Halloween/Sanhaim/Día de los Muertos/All Souls’ Day. The dead are as close as ever, and so is death itself as the plants begin to die, or at least play out the appearance of it.
I had another epic text-sesh recently with a different soul-sista while taking my favorite Sunday evening train up to meet Rama in Nevada City at the conclusion of both his and my work weeks. I was gushing over how much I love the feeling of traveling alone to see a beloved someone—though I am completely excited to see that person, I really savor the journey itself. The between-time is experienced as the most blissfully me-ish Me-Time. She said she feels the exact same way about planes (also that since her mother recently passed she feels especially close to her while traveling), adores passing her solo pre-re-united hours ecstatically making drawings while “impossibly suspended in clouds.” It struck me as such a woman thing too, that it is in the in-between of love’s cushioning demands that we eke out small "selfish" creative spaces and times, but that’s another story for another blog.
It also occurred to me in retrospect that these precious in transit moments are such a perfect example of liminal time, which is so much of what Samhain was/is about, and is so much of what autumn is about.
I’d asked this friend a day or two before my train trip how she was, and she said that fall made her feel “so joyful” but also “thr[ew her] into utter crisis.” I told her about the thin place/thin time stuff, and wondered if maybe it was a time of year where the stuff separating her from the “big questions” thinned out as well. She dug the notion, said the cold of fall snapped her awake, and then wondered if on the East Coast (where she lives) the fall is especially dramatic because it creates such a sharp sense of the fragility of life, where
“everything is in its death throes—there’s an urgency to it. [The fall there] goes from crisp to chilly to cold to bitter. It’s such a wild cycle—you can feel the life leaving things in this extraordinary blaze. But you know what’s coming, like relief from the summer quickly turns into winter dread, which is why [she has] a crazy love-hate with transition seasons.”
So perhaps her fall-feeling of going inward, going spare, is informed by her habitat, whereas my experience of el otoño has a little more of a West Coast flavor.
To me the fall has always felt charged, like a chilly clean offshore breeze, electric with kicked up mischief and full of leaves.
I don’t think it’s a total coincidence both of my major adult romantic relationships commenced in the fall—everything feels closer, more possible, lightened, venturesome, reckless.
There’s so much more that could be said about all this time and space, life and death, liminal in-limbo stuff, but I want to keep things timely and so I’ll leave it here as my ode to autumn, and to thin times, with the invocation that we all use any extra tingly woo-woo sensitivity to tap into a charge, and that we draw a little closer to the things that are perhaps themselves drawing nearer to us as well.