The summer after I graduated from college, days before I moved to New York to start a real adult life, I saw a ghost. Or maybe it was an angel, or a rare subset, a guardian ghost. Decades later, I’m still not sure. I am sure that it was not a dream or hallucination. After all these years, I can see her and hear her as if she appeared last night.
I am aware that many of the details sound like classic ghost story tropes: It happened in the spooky old house my family moved to when I was 14 years old, after my mother decided that our first house, a cozy brick ranch house designed by a uncle and largely built by my father, was no longer big enough. The house was a steal because the previous owners were highly motivated to sell.
There was something gloomy and oppressive about the place. The kitchen was modernized but the rest of the house was full of dark wainscoting, and the diagonal placement of the fireplace and the angles felt off-kilter. The doors didn’t shut tight. I left my bedroom door ajar because it often creaked open in the middle of the night. Even my father, the most pragmatic and cheerful of men, admitted that the dark and narrow upstairs hallway felt “ominous.”
The front room upstairs, the former master bedroom, became my room. It had three huge windows that overlooked the street, so it should have been cheerful but it was the gloomiest room of all. As in many old houses, it had no closets, just a big cherry wardrobe, and it was dominated by n wooden bedstead with an elaborately carved headboard that touched the ceiling and a footboard about five feet high. Brackets had been added in the frame to fit a modern mattress, but no one very tall could sleep in it. It was the family joke that the master bedroom was mine because I was the only one who fit the bed.
The antique dealer who eventually bought the piece called it the “Shakespeare bed” because the grain of the wood in headboard was split in such a way that it looked a little like a shadow outline of William Shakespeare, with his pointed beard and ruffled collar. It also had big carved urns on top of the bedpost finials, and was in every way the perfect bed for a teenage girl with a moody and dramatic cast of mind.
To heighten the gothic effect of the room, I covered my walls with black light posters of Jim Morrison and psychedelic images and prevailed on my father to bolt a three foot black light to the ceiling that illuminated everything in stark purple way. Like many adolescents, I sensed that I secretly might be capable of a deeper, greater life and felt that this—and many of my finer feelings and observations—were best kept hidden under a protective layer of darkness.
By the time I graduated from college, most traces of my dark hippie or proto-“goth” style were gone. Still, the sense of being cut off from real life—big life–persisted. Soon after graduation, I took a trip out West in a VW van with my boyfriend of the time. It was an archetypal American road trip, no real plan or route, just a powerful impulse to be in wide open spaces—to have a spacious view. Like many recent graduates, I feared than I might miss this big potential life, that I might wander forever in the samsara of my crummy little life. I felt I had to do something or find something or someone. I just didn’t know what or who.
I had vague plan to drive to Boulder, Colorado, to meet the great Buddhist teacher Trungpa. But once I made there, we sat drinking coffee in a place called the New York Bagel Cafe, full with the desolate feeling that I was going the wrong way. Influenced by many voices, including my parents but especially a college friend (who turned out not to be a friend, but that’s another story) who worked at the New York Times, I decided that studying Buddhism in the Rockies would be dropping out of life. The adult thing would be to do something hard. I decided to move to New York and find a job in journalism or publishing.
Back home, I was full of misgivings, certain only that I was uncertain. The ancient Celts spoke of the “thin places”—times and states when the boundaries between worlds, between day and night, sleep and waking, what is seen and unseen, is more porous. Maybe I was in a thin place. Certainly I was closer to recognizing the basic insecurity of life.
Days before I was to move to New York to begin what I hoped would be my real adult life, I woke in the night with a start to see the ghostly apparition of a young woman standing at the foot of my bed. Although she and her dress were white, I could see every detail. She had long wavy hair and was dressed in a lacy Victorian dress. She looked like she was in her late teens and I had the impression that in life she had been very fair.
She smiled at me.
I remember gasping for breath as if I was running for my life. My heart raced and my lungs burned, yet I was paralyzed with fright. Years later, I wrote a story for a magazine about ghosts and I learned that being paralyzed is a standard “symptom” in true ghost stories. And so is this: I didn’t see her feet. Even without being blocked by a five-foot headboard, ghosts never show their feet.
She told me her name was Elizabeth, and added that she didn’t live in this house but nearby. She indicated that she could be reached if needed— and I had the impression that she meant she lived in the house next door. This proved wrong, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
“I came to tell you something,” she said. “If you don’t want your body, there are others who do.”
I have never been shocked by an electric cattle prod, but I imagine it feels something like I felt then. A tremendous, affirming “No!” welled up from the depths of my being. I squeezed my eyes shut and saw white. I willed myself to grip the sides of the bed. “I want this body. I want to live!”
It was as if I woke up from a dream into a nightmare. I was being told—by someone who was clearly not alive—that a person could lose this precious human life by not wanting it enough, by being inattentive or uncaring. I was being told a person could just disappear, and their body could be taken over by another force, another who-knows-what. And I found out how much will and determination I had to live.
Still smiling, Elizabeth backed away, reminding me that I could find her if I needed her. With a great effort, I peeled my frozen limbs off the bed and ran down the hall to wake up my mother. Still gasping, heart pounding, I choked out what happened: “You might think I’m crazy, but I’ve just seen a ghost.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” she said in a solemn voice. She told me that she had been awakened by a feeling of tremendous cold one night. She saw a column of white mist in the doorway and approached it. “I felt so cold and sad as I walked towards it,” she said. This fog grew colder and denser as she neared it, then it disappeared.
In the days that followed, I heard other stories. A houseguest, a friend of my brother, was alone in the house one afternoon. He reported hearing footsteps in the upstairs hall and a heavy scraping sound like a trunk being dragged across the attic floor. The my parents came home from a month-long vacation and felt a presence in the house. “It was the strangest thing,” said my father. “It was as if someone wearing violet cologne, a very old-fashioned scent, had just left the room. Your mother and I looked at each other without saying a word, each of us sensing that someone was there.”
I was the only one who saw—and received a warning from—an apparition. But as the haunted house evidence accumulated, I began to sense that the apparition I had see was something else. After my parents sold the house (for a song), they told me more stories of sadness and losses that befell the people who moved in after us. But I began to feel that Elizabeth had come to help.
A decade later, I was a struggling freelance writer, living in New York. New York Magazine gave me an assignment to cover a séance in a chic neighborhood on the Upper West Side. I was to write a tongue-in-cheek piece about well-off people seeking guidance from a man who went into a trance state and purportedly channeled a great wise being. I was convinced the man was a fraud and I asked all kinds of silly questions to try to prove it.
“I have a question for you,” said the man, when he came out of his trance. “Who is Elizabeth? All around you I heard the name Elizabeth.”
I never published that story. It took me years to find the courage to tell this story, and decades—now—before I wrote it down. But over the years, it has come to seem a powerful teaching, even a kind one.
Over the years I have come to see there is trustworthy guidance in this world. The Noble Eightfold Path and the Beatitudes and other ideas come down to us from a higher level of awareness. They are thrown down like guide ropes, given to us like the gift of fire, so we won’t be doomed to wander aimlessly through life the way I tried to cross the country, guided only by our own changeable and self-centered desires. But I also know we can be lost…and there may be help.