There Is A Small Medium at Large

Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae, the psychic, in the movie Ghost.
Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae, the psychic medium, in the movie Ghost.

Well, my traveling friends, it’s true: there is a small medium at large.  You know how, when you travel, you are met with  new and unexpected experiences?  That’s the draw of it, right?  This is also true when you move to a new region–there are sure to be interesting developments, to be moments of “Oh, wow,  that’s never happened to me before.”

Any number of moments, really.   But here is one for your consideration.

The red stone house in Germany
The red stone house in Germany

As you know, we’ve just moved back to the States from Germany.  And if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I was sorely disappointed that the very old stone house we lived in there wasn’t haunted, even though we had enough ghost stories under our belts already.  Anyhoo, as we packed up to bid Germany goodbye and we planned our new life in Florida, we gave up any hope of supernatural tales.  In fact, in our last weeks, we were told that the old German house used to be called Villa Sunshine by the locals.  Not much spooky there.

So off to sunny Florida, where sangria and surf are the norm and atmospheric tales stay at bay.

Then again . . . we hadn’t even gotten to Florida before a Floridian friend was in contact and, on hearing where we would be renting our house, said “Hey, that’s the neighborhood with the psychic, isn’t it?”  zoltarfull02

Was it?  We didn’t know.  Honestly, we didn’t care.   But weeks later, as we moved into the new digs, we found ourselves on the lookout.  Any odd-birds in the neighborhood?  Anyone walking around in a turban, looking like Zoltar the fortune teller?

Our curiosity was peaked, but we had no idea what we might be looking for.  There were no “Sister Rosa, Palm Reader” signs in front yards–the Home Owner’s Association would have frowned on that.  There were no Gypsy caravans parked in driveways.  So we were on the lookout for any eccentrics that we might pin the role on, but we were coming up with nothing.  Which just made us more curious.

I don’t have any experience with psychic mediums.  My only reference points are examples like the Zoltar fortune teller machine and Whoopi Goldberg’s character in the movie Ghost.  (A character whose narrative arc is pretty interesting:  she starts out as a charlatan and ends up being more sage than she ever knew she could be.)  If you don’t remember her, here’s a small clip for you:


Yeah, generally speaking, I guess the idea of a psychic makes me giggle.  At worst, this person would be a con man–  ready to prey on folks who are looking for reassurance or struggling through grief.  But then again, there are some people who are intuitive, you know?   And so many of us have stories that defy logical explanations, so maybe . . . just maybe. . .

Bottom line:  I’m a skeptic, but not foolish enough to say it isn’t possible.

So my husband and I continued our neighborhood watch– it was our project to figure out where this eccentric might live.  We embraced the challenge a little too happily:  we watched the neighborhood and the neighbors, we commented on odd decor and strange choices of head-gear, we sat in judgment of peculiarities or individual flights of fancy.

Little did we know. . .

Honestly, here’s exactly where I should have seen the plot twist coming– I’m an English and Religious Studies major, after all, and this is the age old tale.  When you’re looking for the trouble out there–the fault in your neighbor– well, you’re looking in the wrong place.  More often than not, the fault is your own.

So guess where this psychic lived?  Yep.  Oh, yep.

Turns out, we’d moved into the house.

*  * *

I’ll give up no information on this person– who by all accounts from neighbors, and our own dealings, is fantastic.  In fact, this makes me want to be more open to the idea of a . . . psychic?  I don’t even really know what that is.  I have this hodgepodge of terms in my head– psychic, clairvoyant, medium, spiritualist, etc.– and I don’t really know what they mean, or how they’d be distinguished one from the other.   Really, all this situation has taught me is that I know nothing and should probably keep my mouth shut.   We’ll see how well that lesson takes . . .

But in the meantime, I’m left with this:  as much as I’m a skeptic in my head, my heart seems to be a total buy in– and it’s causing me some real trouble.

A couple of weeks ago, our landlord dropped by the house with an extra set of  keys that we needed.   I answered the door, was welcoming and polite, as usual, and then suddenly froze  as I was shaking this person’s hand.  I had the thought, “What if _____ can sense my thoughts?  What if they know I know?  That I think being a psychic is strange?”  Of course, these thoughts were followed by a barrage of “Stop thinking.  Seriously.  Right now–stop.  Oh, I can’t control my thoughts!!!”    And, intuitive or not, anyone would have gotten some strange vibes from me then.  I’m pretty sure my entire facial expression went to the deer caught in the headlights pose for a minute or more, and I was pretty much a jabbering idiot.  So again, lesson to the arrogant:  judge not lest ye be judged.   Which is not fun.

And this week the same problem arose.  This time, our air conditioning started limping (freon leak), and we had to call the landlord.  My husband tried to hand me the phone to make the call– I’d noticed the problem and would generally have made the call myself.  But I was not feeling it.  It had been a stressful day –unpacking boxes, sifting through breakage, and muttering obscenities all day– and I just wasn’t ready to call up a mind reading spiritualist.   I had to, shame-faced, take my husband out of earshot of the kids and say, “You really have to make this call, because I think that maybe I DO believe in psychics, and I think that a psychic would pick up on a whole lot of bad juju and general craziness in me right now, and I’m not feeling like being evicted from my house today just because I happen to suffer from this-is-what-it’s-like-inside-my-wierd-head-syndrome.”

God bless my husband.  He asked no further questions and just made the phone call.

I did, however, have to speak to our small medium at large a couple of days later to confirm that the air conditioning repair man had been by.  I think that conversation went well.  Granted, I was manically chipper sounding.  Possibly one toe over the crazy-line of chipper. (I had to talk fast before the “can’t-  control- my- thoughts–you’re a pyschic!” stuff crept in.)  But it is what it is.

Any psychic worth their salt would understand the issue and forgive me.

I think it could be a real burden being a psychic and dealing with all us crazy humans.  Hopefully the voices from the other side are much more sensible.



All I Want for Christmas is a Ghost

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a This Old House post, but here goes.

We loved the atmosphere of this house from the first moment we saw it.  We have continued to love those moments when you turn the corner toward our house and– “Ta Da!”– you see the oh-so-European red stone castle (albeit diminutive) that we call home.

ghosty snow house moon
A foggy winter night at “the castle.”

We moved into the house a year and a half ago, fully aware that an old house would have its share of issues: hot spots, cold spots; inefficient utilities; old bathrooms; pipes that occasionally clog; and light fixtures that give up the ghost.

But we also considered that the ghosts of this house might not be the giving up kind.

“Marley was dead, to begin with … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”  Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Creative Commons licensing

 When we first moved into this old home, I harbored a secret fear and longing–a uncomfortable pairing– that the place might be haunted.  It was the right sort of house for that:  imposing, old, creaky, and definitely situated in a country with its share of ghosts.

I was terrified that we’d be plagued by eerie happenings.

 But then nothing happened.  

Eventually, I became simply curious about whether eerie things might happen.

Still, nothing happened.  

After a while, I was just put out that nothing, not one darn thing, spooky had happened.  What a rip off!  I have to live with old (I mean OLD) bathrooms, and I don’t even get a good ghost story out of it!?  Not a fair trade off if you ask me.

DSC_0300 - CopyBut ghosts are people too, and they have their own agendas.  I remember putting up Christmas decorations last year and wondering what sort of celebrations this house had seen over the century-plus of its life.  It’s no manor, but it’s grand enough that the original owners must have lived a fine life.  What was Christmas like for them?  Did the Christmas Eve table gleam with silver?  Was it loaded with salmon, goose, and sausage?  Did the children go to sleep fat with gingerbread and the parents groggy with spiced wine?

And what of the years after World War I, when French troops occupied the area?  Was this a dramatic change, considering this area has always been a source of border disputes?  Was the occupation a barely perceptible weight on the shoulders of the locals who must have been haunted by their own grief, so many young soldiers lost in the war?

And this interplay of politics and personal life certainly wasn’t diminished in the years that crept toward World War II.  What about those Christmas dinners?  Were there rousing nationalistic talks around the table, was there support for the Third Reich, or was there dread at the creeping dark?  Were Jewish friends hidden in the cavernous basement to keep them safe?  Were Nazi armaments held there? This is the era whose ghosts send icy chills through me.  I want to know the house’s history, but I don’t want to know the house’s history.

Staircase between floors/apartments
Staircase between floors/apartments

And then after World War II, when the house was divided into apartments on each level–still lovely, but divided,  like Germany itself, by the rise and fall of its fortunes, ambitions, and fate.

Reverence or dread–the families who have lived here might inspire either.  I would revel in the one, but stoop under the weight of the other.

It’s better not to know, I tell myself.

Still, I want a ghost for Christmas.  I can’t shake that feeling.  It’s part of the old house package.

“The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.”  -William Faulkner

I had a ghost once, a few years ago.

I know, I know–just hear me out.  This is a story that is usually told under different circumstances.  The general rule: you must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening; for that matter, I must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening; at that point, it all makes more sense.  And one more thing–the children aren’t around.  If they heard the story, they’d never sleep again.

I’m taking a risk in telling this story: first, I can’t be sure that you’ve had any wine (strike one); second, it’s 8 a.m., and I’m nursing a semi-cold cup of coffee, which is a much starker place to be than wrapped in the warmth of a wine glass (strike two); and third, my children may read this (although unlikely, as they find this “mommy blog” vaguely ridiculous) (strike three on two counts then).

So here’s the deal–I’ll tell you my ghost story tomorrow.  That gives you a chance to grab a glass of wine, if you are so inclined.  It gives me a chance to write this post in a foggy evening state, instead of this stark-morning-coffee-mind that has its current grip on me.

Meet me here tomorrow, if you dare, and I will tell you my ghost story.

chistms carol page

The Old Man and the Sea

July 2015,  Prague, Czech Republic


This is one of those moments that gets under your skin, one of those moments that you wonder about long after the moment has passed.

We woke up early one day in Prague–planning to walk the town, and especially the Charles Bridge area, before the rest of the tourists woke up and the crowds gathered.  It was a good plan.  Prague is a fantastic city, but the summertime throng of tourists (added to the 100 degree heat of this particular week) is oppressive.  DSC_0085

So we started early, in order to have views like this:

We very nearly had the bridge and the streets to ourselves.  We meandered, took photos, and drank coffee.

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The sky was hazy in an early-morning way, and, while our spirits were high, our brains were just peeking out of their foggy morning stupors too.  We were in a quiet, subdued sort of morning state when we turned to make our way back over the Vltava River.

We walked slowly, sipping our coffee, and looked up to see this:

A beautiful view of the Charles Bridge, with our rower in the mid ground.

I snapped a photo and sipped more coffee.  As I walked along, I kept a lookout over my left shoulder to watch the rower’s progress.

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Once he was close to me, I realized that this was a very elderly man, rowing his solitary boat down the long river ever so slowly.  He was dressed for more than that slight chill of the morning, in a heavy jacket and old camouflage pants, and he sat with his back to his travel bag and crutch in a rustic wooden boat.

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Where was he going, this elderly man who walked with a crutch and a heavy bag?  Was he rowing across town because it was easier than walking?  Was he making a longer journey, across towns or across borders, with just his arms and the current to propel him?  This man was a story that I’d never have the chance to read to its end–and that made me a little sad.  But I quietly cheered him on as he passed– he was the old man and the sea, full of determination and greatness, bowing neither to age nor circumstance.

When you look at a map of the Czech Republic, you will see a land locked country.  I used to see the same.  No more.  To me, the old man and the sea will always be an integral part of the city of Prague.

This Old House, This Storied Country, and One Mysterious Apple


apple 2

We are, each of us, a product of place, so sometimes our environment creeps into our psyche more than we care to admit–I was reminded of this fact by an unassuming apple in my front flowerbed.   A flowerbed that sits before a very old house, built of red stone, hand-hewn and crooked; a house that is, by turns, lovely and eerie.

I walked out the front door of my house and saw the apple  there–red and vibrant among the few green leaves that still cling to the frozen branches of those front bushes.  A bright spot of color in the largely barren tones of winter, it was a welcome sight.

But how did it get there?  There is no apple tree in the front yard, and the apples from the back yard are small and earth-toned by comparison.  Where did this gem come from?

Where my mind should have wandered in its answer is to my children.  “Who walked out the front door and threw their lunch apple into the bushes?”  That’s the logical question.

But I’ve been reading that German classic, the Brothers Grimm, and traveling to the Black Forest and various sundry towns mapped out in labryinthine streets of half timbered houses.  The sorts of places that both delight and unsettle the pysche as night falls. . .the sorts of places where Santa makes the rounds with his sinister cohort Krampus in tow.

So where did my mind go as my eyes fell on the apple?

The gypsy woman who had knocked on our front door the weekend before.  That had never happened before, and it was a little unsettling.  My husband answered the door, but couldn’t understand anything she was saying.  Was it German?  Was it some other language, something Eastern European?  Who knew?  He kindly, firmly sent her away without whatever she had come for.

And here we were the next day, with a lone apple in our front flower bed–red, shiny, seductive in the barren patch.  Like a riddle she left behind.

It’s still sitting there.  Part of me knows that this is a silly flight of fancy.

But part of me wants to run out and take a giant bite of it, just to see what magnificent story would begin to untangle in the moment of that fateful taste.



What’s in a Name? (A Whale of a Tale)


This is a traveler’s tale, believe me.  Just suspend your disbelief for a few minutes, and you’ll see how it all comes around.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”  –so says Juliet in Shakespeare’s play.

Of course, the Bard is right when it comes to the star crossed lovers of his play, but other times it seems that there is something in a name.  Some hint of the stars, indeed, the trajectories of fate.  I offer up my husband’s family for closer inspection.  (Sorry guys!)

When we had our first child, I dabbled with dozens of name combinations.  I wanted to use family names, especially for my children’s middle names.  As it turned out, both of my kiddoes have middle names that come from my family.   I tried to be fair minded, but a quick look into my husband’s family tree sent me running scared.  The first three names to appear in the foliage of that tree?

Butcher.  (NO thank you.)

Butts.  (Funny, but not for my children.)

Coffin.  (Oh, dear Lord.)

Those names weren’t destined to go down in my family, except anecdotally, as the names which shall NOT go down in my family.

But then. .  .

(That’s where so many stories begin, isn’t it?  “Everything was just fine.   But then…”)

But then I picked up Nathaniel Philbrick’s book  In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.  I picked it up because I’d loved his book Mayflower and I looked forward to hearing his voice again; I didn’t have any particular love of sea-faring tales.  But what a crazy tale opened up to me when I opened Philbrick’s book.  His story of the tragic wreck of the Whaleship Essex was a tale I already knew, in some measure, from  Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s long winded but brilliant tale of mania, fate, superstition, life and death, good and evil: the motherload of English Department themes.

The Voyage of the Pequod,” illustrated by Everett Henry (Wikimedia Commons

Who knew that Melville had founded his story in the circumstances of an actual whaleship–The Essex–that had been sunk by an angry whale?  And the wreck of the Essex both fascinates and horrifies not only in the circumstances of the wreck, but even more in the horrifying tale of survival, and attempted survival, of her crew.

The Essex was small, but she was known as a lucky, profitable ship when she left Nantucket in 1819.   Her voyage to the west coast of South America would take over two years, and things got rough for this lucky ship even in the first week of the voyage.  A squall hit and the ship was damaged.  But that was just the beginning.  By November of 1820, her luck ran out entirely.

I’d love to recount the entire story for you here, because it is horrifying and fascinating all at once, but Philbrick tells it best, and a blog post isn’t the right vehicle for an epic tale.  (Yes, I hear you thanking me.)  The half penny version is that the crew members were afloat in three small boats, with little water or food (much of which became salt-soaked and only increased their thirst).  They were about 2,000 miles off of the South American coast at the time.    The boats were separated in a squall.  Starvation and dissociative madness ensued, and death picked them off one by one.

Nearly 100 days after the Whaleship Essex sank, the very few survivors (about 5 men) were rescued.

The Essex had started out with 21 men.  She had started out a lucky ship.  Her journey took an awful turn.  But also an awe-full turn.

That turn went like this:

1-The first mate, Owen Chase, was one of the survivors, and he wrote an account of the tragedy: The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex.

2- That account fell into the hands of Herman Melville while he was at sea on a whaling voyage.  In fact, legend has it that Melville met Owen Chase’s son on that voyage.  Chase reportedly gave Melville a copy of his father’s story.

3- Melville’s copy of the story indicates his deep connection with the surviving Essex men, as he scribbled in the pages, “Met Captain Pollard [who had captained the Essex] on Nantucket. To most islanders a nobody. To me, one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met.”

And so the story of the Essex has lived on in American literary culture–in spirit, if not in detail-for-detail fact.

But why do I offer it up here?  Because the Whaleship Essex was carrying a young boy named Owen Coffin.  Yes, Coffin:  one of the leaves in the foliage of my husband’s family tree.*  And one of the most gruesome, but absolutely necessary, links in bringing you the tale of the Essex and the novel Moby Dick. Without Owen Coffin, Captain Pollard and another boatmate would not have survived.

In the most desperate last days of their desperate ordeal, the men of the Essex survived only by resorting to cannibalism.  Disturbing enough that they had to cannibalize their dead shipmates, but in the final days they resorted, just this once,  to “drawing straws” to make the ultimate sacrifice.  One of their own would be killed to save the others.  Owen Coffin drew a bad lot.

Well, what is in a name, indeed?

I don’t regret bypassing the gloomy monicker for my own children, but then. . .

I also thrill to this odd link to American history –both in the Essex and in Melville’s near-Biblical tale of struggle and mania and survival.

I’ve traveled an awful lot of roads in life, in a journey not only over geographic terrain, but over cultural and temporal peaks as well–that’s the nature of our lives’ stories.  So if my children’s stories reach back to a heritage that includes Owen Coffin’s tale–Owen Coffin’s horrible, gruesome, but somehow resilient tale (in the survival of Chase and under the pen of Melville)–then I am thrilled.

It’s a very long view of the journey, isn’t it?

Owen Coffin suffered a horrible fate.

But Owen Chase lived to tell.

And he told Herman Melville, whose book bombed in his own  time .  . .

But became a classic of literature in the 20th century.

And I scoffed at the name Coffin. . . only to find that I admire it more than I could have imagined.

As we travelers always say,  “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”



*My husband’s ancestor left Nantucket for the coast of Canada in the years following the American Revolution.  It’s not clear whether he was also a whaler, but he may have been a loyalist in the King’s Navy during the war.