Thursday, October 26, 2006

Myth and Memory and . . ?

Had the best talk ever today with Nancy Zingrone at the Parapsychology Foundation. Nancy was one of the first people I ever met in academic parapsychology, and she is still one of the most remarkable people I know. I ended up back in touch with her over a case going on in Wisconsin, and she filled me in on lots of developments in the parapsychological community.

I've still never met Nancy in person, but I've known her since I was an undergraduate, amazed at the existence of the science of parapsychology. As many young people do each year, I contacted the Parapsychological Association for information about careers in parapsychology, and I got the same advice that parapsychologists have always given: Don't quit your day job!

So I didn't. I pursued a career in history and folklore, which has gone a long way, I think, in helping to make Chicagoans aware of "what lies beneath" their city. When I wrote my first book, Chicago Haunts, back in the mid-1990s, two Chicago ghost tours had been operating for years, but--though we had the the Halloween stories in the local papers each year--not a single volume had ever been published on the subject of Chicago's ghostlore.

Unfortunately, among the great reviews of Chicgo Haunts were the unspoken responses of those famous Chicago ghosthunters who suddenly decided to publish their own books after thirty years. I know what their reviews were: "Who does this girl think she is?"

But that's okay. Because now, their years and years of research are documented for generations to come. That's a great thing! And that's all I wanted in the first place: for someone to write down all these intriguing stories. And boy did they ever! Today, there are about a dozen books on Chicago's ghostlore. And they're still coming.

Ghostlore is a funny word, but it works.It's a funny word because it's a made-up word. And it's a made up word because we needed one.

There is no word which adequately describes what my more able colleagues around the world and I do. It's its own thing--kind of like parapsychology itself. If you don't get it, you don't get it. And you can't get it unless you're willing to look at what you're looking at from out of the corner of your eye. Sound confusing? It is.

As some of the reviews on attest, "Is this supposed to be history?" "Ursula Bielski is a lousy historian . . . she doesn't even tell us the year these things happened!"

And so ghostlore is not traditional history. It is purposefully--and shamelessly--elusive at times, sparing of dates and names, all in the interest of maintaining a certain fogginess that speaks to the way in which people experience the remarkable events of which we write. Ghostlore tries to communicate that these events are timeless, and universal, and transcendent of our mundane existence.

Ghostlore is not folklore, because its subject matter comes from the rush of real experience--believe it or not.

Ghostlore is not even properly categorized with the thousands of ghosthunting reports published each year these days on the internet, or on television (or in books, less and less), because it is not searching for answers, but is happy with emotions . . . with memories . . . with sighs for days gone by. In fact, these are its only rewards.

I am enmeshed these days in preparing the third volume of Chicago Haunts, and as I work each day my own memory is flooded again and again with memories of my own Chicago--with that special blend of myth and memory--and experience--that makes ghostlore something that (like these beautiful, preternatural phenomena) refuses to be defined. I hope that my flooded memory--and the memories (and experiences, and myths and . . . ?) of many, many past and present Chicagoans--will make this coming volume as elusive, as transcendent, as decidely undefinable as the first two.