Playing with ghosts

I get shy or maybe nervous about sharing things of a more spiritual nature, but this little experience urged me to share. You can read this or just skip to the fun, upbeat song linked here. (Or just scroll on, it’s okay).
I’ve shared that my brother died very recently. When my grandmother died last fall, I remember getting into the car and having this random feeling that the song that played when the car started would be a message from her. I turned on the car and playing on the radio was Lee Ann Womack’s “I hope you dance.” It was such an unexpectedly perfect moment I cried.
One thing that made it so personal was that back in 8th grade, I literally didn’t dance when maybe (maybe? I’ll never know) I could have. It’s something I’ve never forgotten and an experience that has continued to shed light on so many aspects of my life.

I had a crush on this boy through most of 7th grade. The next school year I had the happy impulse to leave a sort of simple token, a card, on his desk. It had a little bible quote on it. He was Christian and I was Christian. Or, I was at least very devoted to the energy of what some call Christ, and very much into Bible quotes (literature major in the making) and prayer and baptism and contemplating the nature of god.
I added something like “from a secret admirer” to the back of the card.
Heart-pounding, I made up my tumultuous and probably wisely hesitant mind, and ducked into our history class during the morning break and am suddenly seized with indecision-in the desk, or on the desk? Sweating, I rapidly weigh the options: red wire or blue wire? In the desk it may get lost or otherwise unseen, another student might find it instead. On the desk, too obvious, too exposed. Red wire blue wire, in on, red blue, in on, ehhh On. Then swift and covert, I’m back out of the room “back from the bathroom.”

When the break ends and we all shuffle into class, one of my friends, let’s call her NotAmy, spies the little card on his desk before he gets there. She snatches it up, holds it up exclaiming—then rushes up to him with it, excited and scandalized out of her mind. His face burns red as he takes it from her.

I played it cool (sometimes I’m good at that) but also felt a.b.s.o.l.u.t.e.l.y gut-wrenchingly t.e.r.r.i.b.l.e because he looked far more angry and embarrassed than anything else. I’d obviously just made the worst mistake of my entire life (you know, relative to junior high) and felt guilty that it had made him feel bad, instead of the good I’d hoped for.
(I guess lost for good or in some random student’s hands would have been better).

Like many of us, I’ve learned some of the most sensitive lessons the hard way.

At the back-to-school dance, a few weeks before I’m scheduled to move back to my hometown and transfer to a new school, a couple of my friends whisper-urge me to go ask my crush to dance. I emphatically say no. No. Way. “But it’ll be your last chance!”
Oh well. Nope.
NotAmy overhears one of these whispered conversations and gasps—“It’s YOU!!!!! YOU’RE the secret admirer!! You HAVE to dance with him!!!”
I’m not feeling so cool at this point. In fact, I have plunged into a sort of abyssal terror.
“No.” I’m trembling head to toe.
She grabs my arm. “Lisa!! C’mon!”
“No. Let go!”
She tugs me his direction by the arm. “You HAVE to! C’mon!!!! It’ll be SO cute!!”
Now she’s literally dragging me across the floor toward what feels like a grisly doom. I’m pretty small; she’s strong, and tall.
Panicked, I dig in my heels and lurch back. She hauls even harder and now my crush and some of our other friends (and half the 8th grade) are staring at the commotion with some mildly concerned, curious confusion… or early pubescent disgusted irritation. You know, cringe.
I’m pulling back so hard that I’m practically on the ground. She finally looks back and makes contact with my wild-wounded-animal-fierce-furious face and gives up. I land on my butt. I stand up. Panting, still shaking, humiliated at my own immaturity, I dust myself off and walk away.
I sort of hope (somehow), still, that he’ll ask me. NotAmy is over there, after all, explaining everything while I look away and pretend none of it exists.
But, no. No dance.

Instead, I learned just how big, how paralyzing my immaturity and my fears really were, long before there was anything I could really do about it.

That is just one part of a much larger story involving my (sometimes humiliating) relationship with dancing and with life more generally. And with all the rest of the goodness and sagacity of that song, perfect choice, Grammy. (It’s like you know me or something. In life, you hardly did)
So, that story went on way longer than the sentence or two I’d intended.
This one I can try (*try) to keep short.
Last night I was feeling a bit worried, a bit perplexed, a bit down, trying to understand my brother’s death from different nihilistic angles and perspectives. But I was also making myself needlessly anxious as I did. So I sat back with a sigh and, only half-believing in it, asked my brother to send me a song. I was already sitting in the car, so I flipped on the radio, right at the beginning of a dance/pop/techno song I’d never heard: “don’t you worry, don’t you worry ‘bout a thing, cause everything’s gonna be all right, everything’s gonna be all right.”
I’ll link the song below.
It’s a fun, happy song.

There are also a few poignant and multi-connective moments that link instantaneously to so much I couldn’t even begin to encapsulate here, opening portals for stagnant grief and all the so-much-else to flow. Even if I can only let it flow little bits at a time.
(“look mama I can fly…”
😭😭😭 )

I can be squeamish with drug/alcohol references in music, too. My brother struggled with addiction as young as our early teens. As I listened to the song, there’s a reference to being “high” that made me feel that well-worn worry. Then I thought, wait, I’m one of those (maybe annoying, maybe weird) people who can and do get literally high off life. Natural high. That’s a thing. It takes intent and focus, but it’s definitely a thing.
My brother is in a place now where he understands “high on life” is the only real high there is, because it’s stable and self-sustaining (even while waxing and waning).

Second reference, one to “taking shots” that had me crumple momentarily. Then I realize that for the past few weeks I’ve had a sort of running private joke (you know, those sort of stupid ones that entertain you but that you’d never try to explain to anyone else) (I’m not the only one, right? Right??) Anyway an inside joke about life as a game and taking shots, as in basketball shots, sometimes hitting the rim or Yes! Nothing but net (this whole post is feeling a little off the backboard entirely).
If I couldn’t do this sort of stupid internalized joking thing, I couldn’t be the word-playing weirdo that I am, that I love to be. So I do it. My brother and I both riffed and grooved with that trickster energy as kids and I’ve never really completely shed it.
Taking shots, now I get it.
Wow, Chris.

I appreciate so much: this song, reassuring me not to worry, confronts me with two things that have worried me (almost) the most during my entire life thus far and it helps me gain a better, more playful perspective on them both. Especially as it relates to my brother and his death. I wish he could have found freedom in life, but at least now he’s free of addiction, and I am free to stop worrying about addiction. He wants me to find freedom in life.
Like my Grandmother.

Part of why I bothered explaining any of this is that I feel a sort of (perhaps unnecessary) responsibility, sharing this song with some of its lyrics after my addict brother dies. A responsibility for making sure that it’s clear that I’m not advocating for drugs, or for dependence on alcohol or other substances as the gateway to joy or celebration. It can be good, harmless fun. But dependence on it to attain higher, more lucid states isn’t.
Most importantly, to me, it isn’t the only kind of “high life” there is. I want us all to find freedom in life.
(Which for me might end up meaning having the occasional drink without being ascetic about it).
Just dancing. Not dependence.

If my brother had known it’s completely possible to get literally high on life, that all it takes is an openness to the goodness of everything, a willingness to prioritize happiness and to exercise focus in the direction of what makes you happy—he’d probably still be alive.
But he didn’t.

He does now, though. I hope he gets to take that knowing into his next physical lifetime.

Anyway. That’s probably way too many words to accompany one shared song. Probably the death of a brother warrants some lengthy, reflective (probably algorithmically negligible) social media posting.

I can’t explain, exactly, how listening to this song makes me feel—after asking my brother for a song, especially when feeling sorta hopeless that I’d actually get one that meant anything at all. I can’t explain how it feels when these tiny little seemingly coincidental or insular connections click into place—or maybe I can. It feels like wellness. Wholeness. Well-being.

Like the feeling of my brother standing right there, grinning just like I remember, waiting for me to get the joke.

Both magical and also, completely natural. Ordinary. Normal. Healthy. Right. Just a part of this thing we call living life.

And while we’re on the subject of the not-so-dead, one last story (or just move along if you’d rather). One afternoon, about a year ago, I was culling old files, mostly old school papers. I came across an ultra cringy sonnet assignment from 9th grade. When I read over the poem I immediately felt this tight knot of shame that I’d handed that poem in to this particular teacher: recognizing only now that I’d exposed something vulnerable and broken to someone who would use it as private ammunition.
I’d also kept a story I’d hand-written for the same class. This particular teacher had died some years before, and that was on my mind too as I picked up the story to read it. We’d been assigned to write a final chapter for the Steinbeck book Of Mice And Men. I’d gotten a D on this assignment, mainly because I hadn’t typed it (no excuse, he says. there are computers in the library and you need to demonstrate you care about your work)—there were a few other critical comments about the futility of my invented character (that was part of the assignment—introduce a new character), and etc. I felt the old flare of anger: it was good enough for a 9th grader playing around with a sort of parodic imitation of Steinbeck’s style. Good enough for a 9th grader envisioning how someone might walk the main character through processing a traumatic event with perspective and compassion. Good enough for a 9th grader writing fan fiction for a book she wasn’t really a fan of, and written with a flourishing nod to the fact that no story is ever done—it all goes on. Moment to moment it goes on.
I’m fuming as I stumble through my awkward teenage prose. I mean, come on, Who the heck assigns a “final” chapter to a master-level novel that’s already done and why?! What the heck could I possibly have had to add to that?? In 9th grade, too. And what was the point?? What good had that assignment ever done me?
I stopped at the end of that thought, realization dawning that a few years ago, I’d written some fan fiction of my own—some fan fiction that amounted to a sort of final chapter after the final chapter, one that invents a new character, and nods (with a flourish) to the fact that no story is ever really done… it was my first (semi)consciously channeled creative work, and at the time, the creative work I was most delighted with having written.
In that moment of practically stunned recollection, sitting on my bedroom floor, I suddenly felt this teacher, his presence, right there with me, beaming a very much tangible sense of affirmation, recognition, connection, love and esteem. Pure positive energy.
I sat with the overwhelming feeling of it for a second or two and then broke down crying—releasing the pent-up grief I’d not even known I’d been holding in regard to this particular teacher’s often callous and sometimes cruel demeanor with me.
I happily tossed the story into the trash, feeling much more light, free now of that particular point of pain.
I couldn’t be more glad for that experience, that assignment, for that D in an English class—for the seed it planted and what eventually, over two decades later, sprang up and grew.

This world is freaking magical, people. Perfectly well-orchestrated.

Here’s the song link. He liked aliens too.