Return to site

La Casa de los Espíritus

It must have been important. Dad never texted complete sentences. There was also the giveaway phrase, “it's important.”

So even though I was hoarding my phone battery, walking through uncharted territories, a stranger in a strange land on my way to an even stranger destination, I called back.

“The old Lizard” was re-suing him, he said. And this time, he wanted to “pound her into the ground” in court. A sentiment with which I could not agree more. He wanted me to send him the emails my stepmother had sent me threatening that if I did not comply with her wishes (namely, that upon divorce, instead of any eventual refurbishings of we four daughters' empty trust fund going to us, the entire fund would go to her), things would go tragically for him.

And as I spoke about this cut-and-dried issue, of whether or not I still had old emails, I felt the lava of an unsuspected volcano of helpless, wronged rage reactivating within me and roiling up to the surface. “She did bad things,” I said, pain reducing me to the vocabulary of a two-year-old. I tried again, but there was so much inside, all that would come out was, “she did a lot of bad things!”

I hung up the phone and forwarded the emails and thought I was done. But it turned out that the phone call was just the sticking-in of the sword. It's when you pull the sword out that the pain really begins.

Packed down inside me was all the hurt I didn't allow myself to feel as a teenager, when all those bad things started happening to me, and it had compounded with interest over time. My body physically swayed with the spectre of pain inside me, as alive and raw as if the past were happening right now. I felt big dangerous feelings I had not allowed myself to feel as a teenager. Feelings I had never allowed myself to feel, about her or about anyone. I wanted this woman to lose everything. I wanted her to spend the rest of her life with nothing, in retribution for what she had taken away from me. I wanted to see her hang. I wanted to personally put her head on a spike on the gates of the city. I wanted to ruin her life.

I wanted her to suffer. Forever.

I was shocked with myself. Had I done no spiritual work at all in the intervening twenty-five years? Or perhaps I had and that was the problem—now feelings that I had previously denied myself as unsafe felt free to announce themselves! But what about compassion? What about enlightenment? What about putting yourself in the other person's shoes?

Bollocks, all of it.

“I have a ghost inside me,” I thought. A ghost I had to live with. How would I ever bring peace to this hungry ghost? Would I ever succeed?

I walked on, wondering how to live with my ghost. I got tired and took a Lyft. I was sitting in the back of the car when an alarm went off. It was my phone?

What's an amber alert, I wondered, staring at my phone. Why do I care about this car they're talking about. I thought this federal alert system was for emergencies. Tsunamis and earthquakes and horrible crimes. Is this...some car overturned on the freeway?

Lane congestion on the 280 maybe?

But I listened and far away from me I heard sharp exclamation marks. SOS! SOS! —I didn't know what this thing was but I could hear that somebody or somebodies, somewhere, was in an extreme level of energetic agitation. Terror...or...panic...or...traumatic stress....

Ghosts do not have to belong to dead people. A ghost is just audible energy.1

For that fleeting moment, while I listened, there was that feeling of hearing a living ghost, sharply. And I knew that whatever was going on, it could not possibly be more serious.

Ten minutes later I arrived at the Winchester Mystery House. It was...yellow!

The sun was shining, the grass was green, the birds sang, the hedges were trimmed, the fountains twinkled merrily, and everything could not have been more forthright and simple and normal.

I walked around the gardens waiting for my tour and I thought, oh how funny. I get it. There's no mystery here. They just call it that. This is no crazy person's folly. This is a sane woman's house...or at least, Sarah Winchester's actions were sane to her, and what's really the difference. This is a sane person's response to an insane energetic motivation.

And then I stopped in my tracks as tears welled up and a huge feeling in my chest and everywhere around me overwhelmed me. I could not stop the tears, they were going to come out and that was how it was. I felt the ghost awakened from my earlier conversation with my dad well up, vibrating. Maybe in sympathetic response to something, maybe not. Whatever it was, my inside ghost couldn't hold it in any longer. Tears spilled from my eyes as my ghost poured out of me.

I walked a couple steps and felt better. I admired the grain winnowers' shed. I felt practical. I admired the fruit-drying shed and the foreman's house. I felt like I had had my mini-meltdown and was done and was ready to be socially acceptable and go on an architectural tour of an interesting historic landmark. Ordinary. Normal.

And then I turned a corner and was facing the front of the main house and my whole chest was full of this huge feeling. It was not a creepy feeling or a weird feeling. I just felt so strongly how hard she was trying to make it nice for them, how hard she was working to make things beautiful, the best house. She worked so hard, she just wore herself out for them! I almost laughed a little—she was designing a house by listening to the dictates of the spirits of people who had been killed by Winchester rifles? The results reminded me of what any designer puts up with when designing by committee! This wasn't paranormal or eccentrically bizarre, this was just one more afternoon in a green room with a director and a costume designer and a producer and a lighting designer and five thousand other people to please. A bedroom door that opens onto a thirteen-foot drop to the garden below? It happens. A room that's missing an entire outer wall? Upside-down columns? Columns that march right off the porch and have to be supported by scaffolding? Expanses of bare wood next to expanses of super-finished painted cornices? Scale thrown out the window, tiny things, huge things, things too high, things too low? Rooms jutting out into the air and then stopping? Just pleasing the clients, like any designer ought. Besides, how different was this from your average Victorian mansion, with their eclectic hodgepodges of zillions of themes and trims and turrets and furbelows and pillars and windows, too much is not enough. This was all completely au courant for the 1880s, just carried to a farther degree.

I took one more step in the front garden and turned and the amused irony in my heart turned to an overwhelming sense of...overwhelmption. I didn't know if I was feeling my own unhappy-teenager ghost wondering about dealing with the future or if this was Sarah's feeling or if this was the feeling of all those dead people, but my thorax and all the air around the whole house at least out to the street and extending far above the top levels of the house was so full of this feeling of fear and dread that I/she/we don't know if the work will ever be done. I/she/we don't know if peace will ever come.

Would there ever be lightness again. More tears.

The heart so full of gigantic longing that this huge burden should some day be eased and that some day it feel peace again. I don't know whose heart. Maybe mine. Maybe everyone's.

There were workers working on the roof. Sarah would be proud. The ghosts had told her she had to keep building that house around the clock and never stop as long as she lived. And since there was such a powerfully strong livingness all around that house, it was one of the most alive places I'd ever been, clearly life of some kind is there, and therefore...good job, workers! Keep at it!

I wonder whether Sarah would have laughed as I did at the greeting sight of the construction crane passing overhead behind her house.

Even though the whole air was full of this large alive feeling, of a huge heavy constant burden and the all-consuming responsibility/Sisyphusian task of trying to bring peace to this burden, this was not a depressing place or a creepy place. It did not feel macabre. Nor did these feelings feel like feelings from the past. They felt as present and fresh as you and I.

I reflected that, although she couldn't have known it would happen, turning the place into a historic attraction and giving tours was a great way to help Sarah work through her burden, even though clearly the process would take some time and she's already, you know, dead. Because passing all those people through the place is like passing lots of little tuning forks through, and the tuning forks pick up the pitch and vibrate it, maybe with or without noticing, and the vibrations strengthen, focus, and clarify the pitch. And once it's not disorganized any more, or rather, once it's been organized from one thing into this fresh thing, then it won't be a heavy burden any more, it will be this other thing, thanks to the help of all those visitors. It's also like passing water through a charcoal filter in a fish tank. Maybe what we hear today is different from what we would have heard in 1920, because today we hear a heightened version that has been run through so many people's resonating chambers, and so many people's signatures have been added. Maybe we hear more.

A young actress in a Victorian costume too large for her swept in and took us around, matter-of-factly, and bearing with good graces the loud, annoying, and recalcitrant toddler someone had brought with them. She took the official line with the “mystery” which is this: We Have No Idea Why Sarah Designed It This Way. Period. That is technically true, since they can't dig her up and have her write an affidavit in re: her motives. But the place is so loud, it is hard to hear anything above the loudness of how much it feels what it's feeling! That feeling is why it is the way it is and I can't believe how the reality and the subtitles (presumably for the hearing-impaired) didn't match at all.

The Winchester baby died. Then Mr. Winchester died. Then Sarah's mother-in-law died. It's enough to make anyone start hearing spirits. Anything to ease the heavy burden of death...if those spirits tell you that there's something you can do that will ease the burden, you'll do it! ….There were plenty of times inside the house when I felt that everything was much simpler than people thought. Because as soon as I saw her name on the plaque, I knew. It wasn't about all these moving parts, it wasn't about ghosts, it wasn't about rooms. It was all about the baby. She couldn't digest protein, so she starved to death after six short weeks of life. And that was when the heaviness came. The husband, the mother-in-law, the ghosts, they were all icing on the real cake. They made things worse, but only the way oranges in Christmas stockings add to the presents under the Christmas tree. I knew this was true because it felt in my stomach the same way I feel when I come to the end of an Agatha Christie mystery and she reveals who did it and how and why.

I suppose you could call this epic post-partum psychosis, combined with a manic nesting urge. Or you could just call it trying to heal.

The tour was difficult for me because tears kept leaking out of my eyes. There was nothing spooky or sinister around, nor even sad, I would rightly say, not sad in a blue kind of way. But this alive livingness, and this huge feeling in my chest and in the air, kept making the tears come unbidden, and sometimes I could not hide them. I would not say the air was oppressive, because living things can't really be oppressive; they are alive, they are like animals, they are simple and nonverbal and just want to feel comfort. Fascist regimes are oppressive. Suburban tract housing is oppressive. Innocent life with needs cannot be oppressive. Yet at the same time, one minute on the grounds of that house would have been enough for a lifetime and a solid hour felt like a zillion years of overexposure to that air and when our guide said that the minute they found out Sarah died, every single servant and worker put down their tools and left the house and never came back, I completely understood.

I reflected that, far from crazy, this was the most rationally designed house I had ever been in. Every single choice was intentional and every single choice was designed specifically for the client. The ghosts had their preferences catered to, and Sarah had hers catered to as well. There was nothing weird or crazy about having your sink and your shower and your banister and your door built for someone of your own height. And if you're 4'9” and that means these things are consequently little and tiny and short, then that's what that means. The trip-you-up extremely short stair risers aren't crazy when they're a design response to Sarah's kind of arthritis that made picking one's foot up for a full-size step painful. The passageway so narrow that both my shoulders rubbed against its opposite walls...well, those Victorians had smaller senses of what human breathing-scale needed to be in houses, and they were shorter back then, and she was shorter even in her time, and I have broad shoulders. The staircase that turns seven times and takes a hundred stairs to only pass a distance of seven feet across and seven feet up...isn't so weird when you hear that Victorians believed ghosts could only travel in straight lines and therefore if you put a kink in the stairs, they wouldn't be able to go farther. Sarah must have gotten tired of the housemates in her head sometimes! Who wouldn't want to put a little distance between them?

Other things...the staircase that ended in the ceiling, the staircase that went nowhere, the doors and windows that opened into walls, the secret passages, the trick doors, the half-inch cupboards, the inscrutable Shakespeare quotations in the stained glass, the doors to thin air, the French windows in the floor, the chimney that rose four storeys only to be walled off at the top and stop before the roof, the rooms that were finished in places and bare construction in other places...they were all still conscious choices dictated by the client/s. There was a reason for every single thing I saw, and that made it a much better house than most. If it had had to defend its master's thesis, it would have passed.

The Winchester house is a living house. It is full of responsive life, and it is also a living house because of all the consideration and reasoned choosing that went into its design, and all the human craftsmanship and labor that went into its building. I realized that this was living space, and the awkwardly huge new bedroom with paper-thin walls in which I had spent the night in San Jose was dead space. Unalive space. It could not live because nobody had put human energy into designing and building it. It was clearly the work of a computer and of machines. It could not grow in livingness no matter how many people spent their days and nights there, because there was nothing to resonate with in the first place.

There were 13's everywhere. 13 bathrooms, 13 lights on the chandelier, 13 panes of glass in the window, 13 wall panels in the room, 13 tiles within the frame, 13 windows in the room, 13 spiderwebs in the stained glass window, 13 daisy finials in the molding, 13 inlays in the ceiling. I wish I could have counted the workmen on the roof, because there just might have been 13 of them. 13 was Sarah Winchester's favourite number. So Victorian. Sure, it's a self-consciously Goth taste to claim, but there was no evidence of skulls in black top hats or or Ouija boards or silk cobwebs in the corner or other Disneyesque occult touches. Ok, there was a séance room. But it wasn't black and covered with stars or anything. It was an ordinary small square room with a door that opened into thin air above the kitchen, another window that opened into indoor space that looked onto another indoor window two feet away (and was said to be in the perfect spot for spying on the kitchen staff from above), 13 exit doors but only one entrance, and Delft blue and white wood panelling. Not spooky: practical. ….Yes, she also loved spiderwebs and designed the spiderweb stained glass window with the 13 crystals. (Tiffany did the other windows.) But there was nothing pointy-witch-hat about the spiderweb motifs. ….She also loved daisies, the most ordinary flower you could imagine, and put them all over the house, in the molding, in the ceiling tiles, in the wallpaper, and in one bedroom, in 13 daisy windows. She was an ordinary woman, who happened to have a gigantic fortune and a sad story.

We were all standing in the laundry room, the annoying toddler still being loud and difficult, when an alarm went off. We stopped, confused. Someone pulled out her phone. Oh. It was one of those. “Yes, we all got them this morning too.” Since everyone seemed to know, I asked: what's an amber alert?

And they told me.

In the ballroom, there was a secret panel in the wall panelling that one day modern workers found during restoration. Behind it was a safe. Inside the safe was another safe. Inside that safe was another safe.

“And what do you think they found in there?” the tour guide asked, with a pause. I don't know why she bothered asking; the thing inside the safe was the feeling. A concentrated, glowing instance of that loud feeling that was everywhere and in my heart. More tears.

“Do you think, with a rich lady like Sarah Winchester, who got $1000 every day of her life in royalties from the Winchester Rifle Company, that the safe was full of money, gold, jewels?

The safe was empty. Except for a lock of her baby's hair and a lock of her husband's hair.”

We all do that. We all put our most glowing feelings inside a safe within a safe within a safe and lock them up behind secret panels in a house only we and our workers are ever allowed to enter. She was just like everyone else.

However, even though I've just written about how unremarkable Sarah and her house were, I found the other people on my tour rather puny, how they just stood about like lumps with dull eyes. It was like they were at a rock concert but were deaf. One man asked a question about construction materials. One housewife admired the brass caps in the stairwell corners that made sweeping easier. But even so, while I thought it would be inappropriate to gawk and make comments, I was surprised that nobody...made any comments!

Our tour guide said that one Halloween evening she had been at the house with a friend for the Halloween party and she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned to her friend but the friend wasn't there. She turned to the other shoulder but the friend wasn't there either. The friend was at least three feet away and swore she hadn't tapped. Someone in our group said, “I don't believe you,” and the guide said, “I don't believe myself either.” What I believe is that we can't assume to interpret someone else's experiences. The mind parses reality into human understanding, so what one person perceives one way may be understood by another person in a quite different way.

And then you have all these deaf people at the rock concert, and their minds will understand (or not understand) something else again. But I think their collective living animal bodies still do their jobs, of catching and releasing data, whether or not the mind is aware. Otherwise how would the place have the same sort of feeling that churches have, the concentrated leftovers of focussed energy passing through many, many people.

When the tour ended I was glad. I had learned a lot about Sarah's story (although not by looking at a bunch of rooms or by listening to a young woman talk), but I couldn't exist at this decibel a second longer and was worn out long before. I thanked Sarah, the dead people shot by the rifles, the dead baby, the dead husband, all those hardworking craftsmen who had made this a beautiful home, and all the people who had passed through this house and magnified the feeling inside it, and I couldn't wait to get off the property line and let my head cool off.

On the train back from San Jose, yet another alarm went off. And it was my phone, another amber alert. It was those children. Someone's entire life hijacked into the terse message, black Honda, license plate #, Soledad CA.

And I listened and I heard those children's living ghosts again, sharp, sharp, and I had to force myself not to pull the emergency train-stopper. I had to get out. I had to save those children. I had to kill the person who took them.

I cried all the way home.

Living ghosts are always with us, no matter how dead or how alive their human bodies are or were, and sometimes they're even ghosts of our own pasts. Who knows, maybe our futures are with us too and we just aren't aware of them. Sometimes we have to pay attention and point our ears to hear the ghosts, and sometimes they are so loud, we don't have to listen, because they crowd out everything else and we have no choice but to hear. They are a fact of life.

But how we deal with our ghosts: that's what makes us who we are.

1FootnoteCemeteries are like reverse gardens; we plant energy-bundles, people, like seeds but different, and their energy slowly undifferentiates itself and becomes less the specific signature of one being and reassumes its part of the static and unchanging amount of energy in the world. If you walk past a cemetery, it sounds like a work in progress, all those different people at different states of becoming undifferentiated and remixing back into the soup. Some cemeteries, like Recoleta, feel like a block party, one of the most vividly alive places in Argentina, full of distinctly different characters—so maybe cultural/religious beliefs held in one's lifetime affect how distinctly or how long energy-shapes cling to certain collections after death.