My Own Kind of Ghost

[Orleans, Massachusetts :: 08.08.08]

In the mornings I get up at 5:30 and sit on the deck and watch the birds in the marsh. For the first four mornings, I read a compilation of E.B. White’s works from The New Yorker. Some of these are the essays that almost drove White to give up writing; the work that made him consider himself a failure. Of course, they’re brilliant.

There’s a sliding door that opens to the deck at the vacation house, and it reminds me of the ritual I had when I was 6 or 7: I’d get up early, go downstairs, butter a piece of bread, turn on MTV, and sit in front of the sliding door in our living room and watch the birds in the backyard.

When I couldn’t watch the birds, I drew pictures of birds. But watching the birds was really what I liked best.

Now, years later, I think it wasn’t necessarily the birds I liked so much — it really was watching the birds: the act of waiting for them, and finding them, and observing them. I didn’t know it then, but I was practicing. The fact that I liked drawing the birds made me think I’d be an artist, but the fact that I liked watching the birds better meant that I’d be a writer.

There were all kinds of birds in the yard of my family’s townhouse on Barrett Street in Northampton: chickadees, in droves; but also house finches and goldfinches, grackles and flickers, sparrows and juncos. Best of all: in the summer, the evening grosbeaks that filled the willow tree across the field.

Back then I had a catalog of birds in my head, and a checklist of birds I’d actually observed.

Little has changed — except that now I catalog people as carefully as I once cataloged birds.

On this trip, my checklist includes a chubby kid on the beach named Wellington, nicknamed “Beef” by his friends; the teenager behind the register at T.J. Maxx whose Russian accent, ill-fitting salmon-colored sweater and plaid shorts were all working against his attempts to flirt with a girl purchasing a pile of thongs; a man eating Twizzlers and Cheez-Its on the wharf in Provincetown, looking like he was maybe having the best day of his life.

And my favorite so far: at Joe’s on Beach Road in Orleans a sports writer sits at the end of the bar holding court for a couple in their fifties.

“Sports writers aren’t what they used to be” he’s arguing. Most aren’t actually good writers: they simply know a thing or two more than the average guy about sports. Peter Gammons? Not a great writer, but one of the best baseball minds of his generation. He could be a Major League general manager — and he may be more fit for that than he is for writing. A good writer, on the other hand, can always be a good sports writer, whether or not he knows the difference between a first down and an infield fly. A good writer will know how to tell a story, without cliches, and that’s the more important thing.

He supplied good evidence for his thesis, but he supplied better evidence for mine: a writer always needs an audience, whether he’s sitting behind his computer or sitting at the end of a bar.

And so here I am, piling the evidence only higher.

A little after 6:30 in the morning, the grass in the marsh turns from green to green-gold, and it looks like the light is pouring out of the marsh and into the sky instead of the other way around. The birds at this hour provide a happy distraction from my reading. Way across the marsh, in a stand of trees, I catch a flash of vanilla, grab the binoculars and find a hawk stretching its wings. Back closer to the house, more birds that remind me of Barrett Street: goldfinches and house finches and grosbeaks. Even a few hummingbirds.

And then, this morning, a white egret appeared, standing in the marsh like an angel.

An angel, I think, or a ghost.

I weighed the two similes, imagining how I’d write it down. But this led to a different question: What’s the difference between an angel and a ghost?

It only took a few minutes of watching the big white bird stalking the channel that’d been filled with water only hours earlier, picking off fiddler crabs, to come up with an answer.

An angel is a spirit for whom perfection and paradise do not exist in this world. And so, the prize is leaving this world to live on in another.

A ghost is a more stubborn spirit, though. A spirit convinced that he’ll find paradise — or at least a trace of it — if he sticks around long enough, poking around in the muck.

He’s probably wrong. There’s probably nothing beneath the muck except for more muck. But that’s its own kind of prize: refusing to leave this world until you’ve exhausted all the possibilities. There are many possibilities to exhaust. Ghosts find this very exciting.

If you’d asked me, when I was 6 or 7, I probably would’ve told you that someday I’d be a painter — and after that, if I was good, an angel.

But I’m older now. And now I know that I’m my own kind of ghost.

Going from angel to ghost might seem like a demotion, but it’s really not.

In the morning, the grass in the marsh is green-gold, and the scent of the sea is strong — even if the tide is way out, and even if there are only a few fiddler crabs struggling to find their way through the mud.